Dear Birth Mom

Every year around my oldest daughter’s birthday I write a letter to her birth mom. The letter is kept on file at the Children’s Aid Society in case birth mom ever contacts them looking for updates. The post below was originally conceived as one of those letters but it quickly became something else, something I didn’t feel right about sharing with birth mom. November is National Adoption Awareness month so it feels like the right time to share some of the highs and lows of our experiences. Lucy is not her real name.

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Dear Lucy,

You and I have never met. We’ve never exchanged emails, phone calls or photos. I know what you look like though, because I’ve spent hours staring at the three pictures we have of you, concentrating so hard -looking for similarities but terrified I’ll find them – that I’m convinced my eyesight alone is causing them to fade. In adoption phraseology, you are known as “birth mom” – a term I dislike because it’s at once too clinical and too personal.

Our daughter is too young to remember when she was taken away from you; too young to remember the filthy basement apartment that made the police officers sent to apprehend her physically ill from the stench. Too young to recall all the different places you lived together, and all the different people you brought into her life. And she’s too young to understand what was happening when she was taken into foster care to live with strangers who cared but weren’t you. Weren’t mommy.

She’s also too young to remember her first foster home, the one that asked for her to be removed because, at three years old she was “too difficult” for them to handle. Flipping through the Life Book lovingly prepared by her second foster mom there’s one picture I can barely look at. In it, our daughter is all smiles and wearing a pink polyester princess dress, her hair in curls. She’s three years old and is proudly standing next to two garbage bags containing everything she owned in the world. (Now she has two rolling suitcases, one with puppies and one with kittens, because I’ve come to understand how important it is for her to own something, and I will never allow her possessions to be treated like trash again.)

Our daughter was also too young to remember getting ready for visits with you. Sliding her tiny arms into a pretty dress, having her hair done (which she hates to this day) and getting excited for mommy. There were many times when you didn’t show up but she doesn’t remember that either, and people tell me this is all “for the best”; that it has helped her bond with us because her adoption was like a clean slate, a fresh start. I’m not convinced anyone just forgets the first four years of their life, but for now I’m happy to pretend.

The first time she called me mommy I was so thrilled and grateful that I didn’t even stop to think how that would have made you feel, had you known. To be honest, I wasn’t all that sympathetic towards you. I had a very narrow view of things, you see. I respected the decision you made to surrender your daughter and I told my friends how brave it was, but I secretly wondered how anyone could let go of this beautiful, spirited bundle of light. I mean it when I say you were brave, but I’m also consciously crafting the narrative I want our daughter to embrace when she’s older.

While I’ve always been grateful to you, I was far from compassionate. Intellectually, I understood that you would have had to overcome significant disadvantages to be a successful parent, and I pitied the circumstances you were born into. But my biggest mistake was naively thinking that the miracle of a child would somehow erase everything that was holding you back: poverty, a lack of education, a troubled childhood and issues with your mental health. It has taken me a few years to realize that life doesn’t work that way; that motherhood is not a panacea for every negative thing in your life.

I was fortunate not to suffer from the adoption version of post-partum that many new moms experience. Your daughter and I bonded right away. We grabbed each other at that first meeting and haven’t let go in more than three years. And even though I have a wonderful husband, the support of a large extended family and the financial ability to raise her, in my darkest moments, where fear trumps both reason and experience, I wonder if loving her beyond all reason is going to be enough.

Those first few months with our daughter were hard. Really hard. For almost a year, I could not leave the house without a tantrum and tears. No amount of “I promise I’ll be right back” eased her fear that she would never see me again. We surrounded her with a loving family: a Dad, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and close friends but no one could take the place of mommy, even for an hour or two. In hindsight I can see that because she didn’t talk about you or ask for you, we just assumed (hoped?) she didn’t remember. Incredibly, we expected her traumatized four year-old brain to just accept that this time it would be different: mommy will come back and this will be her forever family. Even though my heart ached for a little girl, barely four, who didn’t believe that mommies come back, I was also frustrated by her inability to understand that I would. She knew I loved her. She had to know. And people who love each other didn’t leave each other. Why couldn’t she understand that this was permanent? It’s embarrassing to write and admit now, three years later, because I see how my fear prevented me from understanding hers; how I should have been helping her work through it instead of fighting it.

Our daughter knows she’s adopted, but she’s only seven so her version of events is light on details. She knows there was a lady who carried her in her tummy, who tried really hard but couldn’t look after her. So she lived with some nice people until mommy and daddy came along and now we’re a forever family. The end. For now, the questions are few and our answers are easy but I know this won’t last forever. Soon she’ll want to know why you couldn’t keep her, who her father is and where you both are now. I lie awake wondering how much time I have before these questions come, how we’re going to answer them and what it will all mean to her and for her.

Before the adoption, I had a cancer scare that resulted in infertility. I spent weeks lying in a hospital bed, thinking my life was over. But in truth it was just beginning because without that operation I would not have become our daughter’s mother. To wrap it up in a nice clichĂ©, the worst thing that ever happened to me turned out to be the best. And regardless of what tomorrow or the next day brings, our daughter will remain the single greatest thing in my life.

I’m sure you have a lot of questions and I hope we’ll get the chance to answer them some day. For now, I can tell you that you gave birth to one incredible little girl. She’s smart, funny, affectionate, spirited and kind. She loves animals and can ride a horse (not a pony
 a horse!) better than most adults I’ve seen. She’s fearless, loves music and can’t get enough of the wind on her face. I have no idea what she’ll “be” when she grows up, nor do I care all that much because what I want for her is bigger than a fulfilling career or even a family of her own. My greatest desire is that those early years not define her, and that the ridiculous and unjust stigma of adoption never holds her back.

November is National Adoption Awareness Month. Until The Last Child, http://www.untilthelastchild.com, is working to find forever families for all Canadian foster kids. They would sure appreciate your support. 

 

 

Haunted by Halloween

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Halloween terrifies me, but it has nothing to do with ghosts and goblins, the prices at Party City or even sending my kids to strange houses in the dark. It’s all about a little debacle I like to call Halloween 2011.

First, a little background: Holidays and special occasions can be difficult for adopted kids. Not only do they feel the pressure we put on them and ourselves, but they also tend to retreat into their own minds, wondering if birth mom or dad is thinking of them on this special day. And kids like mine who were adopted at an older age might even remember opening presents or trick or treating with birth or foster parents. Even if the memories are good, they can cause hurt, confusion and upset.

Daren and I were prepared for birthdays, Mother’s Days and Father’s Days to be tough, and we’d already agreed to keep Christmas low key that first year. But Halloween took us completely by surprise.

It was our first special occasion as a threesome and we’d been talking it up for days. We wanted H to be excited and know how excited we were for her. But by the time we’d shopped for a costume, decorated the house, bought the candy, hosted the kindergarten party, donned the Cinderella gown and prepped for trick-or-treating, she was in full meltdown mode.

Once we realized what was going on, we took a step back and adjusted our expectations for the rest of the night. It was no longer about the perfect night, but about soothing our daughter and giving her permission to feel and express her anxiety. We let go of our plans to take her house to house, showing off her cute little Cinderella dress and treacherously high plastic heels (another rookie parenting fail). Instead we focused solely on what SHE needed, and after an hour on her bedroom floor, we were able to carry on with our plans and had a terrific time trick or treating together.

The calm after the storm

H and I evaluating her haul.

It’s embarrassing to write about this three years later, to admit that we were so naïve and even a little bit selfish. And now that I’m a more experienced parent, I know that special occasion meltdowns are common among all kids. So if you’re crazy enough to take parenting advice from me, I’d recommend you do the following this Halloween:

Step 1. Take out your mental camera.

Step 2. Conjure up your vision of the perfect day, which probably includes costumes that don’t rip, make-up that doesn’t run, wigs that stay on and kids that don’t cry. That’s okay, you’ll learn.

Step 3. Run that picture through your mental shredder.

Step 4. Pour yourself a glass of wine

Step 5: Enjoy every minute of this special day with your kids.

Meet criminal Barbie

If you read my last post you know that naked Barbie dolls are littering my backyard, turning the space between the cedars and the school yard fence into the set of a slasher film. Venture back there and you’ll see a dozen naked blondes covered in dirt, painted eyes staring vacantly up at the sky.

Of course I wasn’t happy about this (Barbies aren’t cheap!) but as we also established in the last post, I am not great at attending to domestic chores in a timely manner.

Now it seems the Barbies have suffered yet another indignity. One that involves being shoved through the holes in the fence so Harmony and her friends can play with them at recess.

I know this because I was asked to stay after school and speak to the teacher about it. I also know this because a young boy was apparently “quite traumatized” by finding naked girl dolls in the school sandpit. I also know this because I happened to see Mermaid Barbie sitting on the Principal’s desk during a meeting that, thankfully, was NOT called to discuss the tiny sex offender living in my house.

Sigh.

So we had a talk with Harmony about not bringing toys to school, and about why a little boy might be surprised to find a naked female form that looks nothing like his mother buried in his playground.

Shame on me for thinking that would be the end of it. Double shame on me for not realizing what she was doing outside the next morning before school.

Can you guess?

Yup. PUSHING THE BARBIES BACK THROUGH THE FENCE. A tidy little “F you” to the powers that be including, or perhaps especially, her mother.

Then, later that day at recess, my little criminal upped the ante by lying to the teacher who came to investigate the crowd gathered around the sandpit.

Harmony, whose credibility might have been hurt by the fact that she was sporting a leopard-print vest, pink tights, blue rain boots and a tiara, could sense her reign of terror was coming to end. Refusing to go quietly, she calmly lied through her baby teeth and said “Nope, no Barbies here.”

To his credit, the teacher figured out pretty quickly that he was being sold a bill of goods. A bill of dirty, naked, anatomically incorrect goods. So he reached into his arsenal of shame and manipulation tactics and said: “Harmony, you empty my bucket when you don’t tell the truth so I’m going to give you to the count of three to tell me what’s going on here.”

Finally, Harmony caved. But not until he got to three, of course.

Now, all of this wouldn’t be so bad if I hadn’t been elected Chair of the Parent Council last week. Thankfully, I insisted the morality clause be removed from my contract but how long until I’m impeached is anyone’s guess.

 

 

Nesting. It’s a Thing.

Like many people, I think September is truly the start of a new year. For years, Labour Day has been my January 1. Whether it was going back to school myself, starting a new hockey season or sending my kids off to school, the first few weeks of September have always by synonymous with change and opportunity, making it my favourite time of year. After all, who’s motivated to embrace fresh starts in the middle of winter? Not this cat.

To me, September represents a gentle transition from the frantic pace of summer, when we’re determined to keep the kids busy and make the most of every sunny day, to the slower rhythm of autumn with its wood-burning fires, crisp air and gorgeous sweaters.

Every year, as I reluctantly move indoors, there are two things I do consistently, without fail. First, I look around and think “how can I possibly celebrate this season of renewal when I’m surrounded by all my old stuff?” And so I march off to Homesense or Urban Barn looking for the “seasonal accents” that will take the sting out of spending the next nine months indoors.

The second thing that happens is that I start paying more attention to food. I spend hours (okay minutes… but lots of them) pouring over cook books and magazines in search of new recipes, healthy tips and creative lunch box ideas.

This bizarre phenomenon is called “nesting”, and it’s a thing. Oddly, it’s most common among pregnant women who are driven by a biological need to feather their nest, so to speak, during the latter months of pregnancy. I assure you there is no bun in my oven yet every September I start caring about things I normally ignore (namely keeping a nice house and meal preparation). If I didn’t have a kid in the bath and a kid …ummm…. somewhere else… I would do a little research and hit you with some impressive psychological jargon. I’d talk about nesting as a product of our primal instincts, bears hibernating, changing seasons, etc etc. But in the absence of any real effort on my part you’ll just have to trust me: nesting is the real deal.

But sadly, it isn’t all scented candles and pumpkin patches. Nesting can be a cruel and sneaky mistress. She can also be a bit of a bitch, if you want my honest opinion.

One of the biggest traps I fall into when nesting? Believing that ads like this represent real life. Believing that with the right throw pillows, blankets, furniture and “seasonal accents” we too can have a picture perfect family. Take this Ikea ad:

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I mean, WHO LIVES LIKE THIS?? No one I know I can tell you that.

In my house the chairs would be mismatched and crusted with dog barf. And they most certainly would not be white. The “accents” would be leftover from my student days, not stylish and colour co-ordinated. And don’t even get me started on the idyllic family scene. At chez Millard the kids would be fighting, crying and looking homeless.

Lately I’ve also spent a lot of time at Michael’s carefully selecting craft supplies I think we both know I’ll never use. I’ve never even HAD a wreath let alone made my own. A recent craft cupboard inventory found hot glue, spray paint, dollar store feather boas, decorative bird cages, push pins, fake pussy willows and a 24-pack of Martha Stewart Crafts Essential Colours glitter. So if Cher ever offers to babysit, we are in business.

Another nesting trap? Convincing yourself school lunches aren’t the anti-Christ. The nesting instinct makes you believe you can make them fun and healthy, that with a little extra effort you’ll be rewarded with smiling, well-fed, academically advanced children envied by their peers because their mom sends “Where The Wilds Things Are” themed lunches.

Are you f-ing kidding me?

Are you f-ing kidding me?

During the first week of school I went slightly berserk with the heart-shaped cookie cutter, using it for everything from sandwiches to cheese. Then I pre-wrote a week’s worth of lunch box love notes, baked up a storm and spent a small fortune on bento box accessories because for some reason having all the food in one container is no longer socially acceptable.

Being on parental leave (ie. surfing Pinterest and Googling “DIY body scrubs” all day) means the nesting sickness has been able to escalate beyond a minor affliction (think bee sting) to something more acute (think smallpox). And like most diseases that result in physical scarring, nesting has left its mark. What have I got to show for all this shopping, crafting, pinning, cooking and creating? Pretty much nothing, unless you count the bento boxes that have been lost, melted in the dishwasher or eaten by a dog. And aside from my daughters’ teachers thinking I am bat-shit crazy, I’ve also managed to set a ridiculously high standard for lunch box cuisine that, upon my return to work, cannot possibly be maintained. Now I have to start reintroducing poor overall presentation, processed snacks and general ambivalence much earlier than I anticipated. Fiddlesticks!

But it’s not all bad. Truthfully, I’ve enjoyed putting more effort into all things domestic, and I’ve really enjoyed having the time to make cookies instead of buying them, and to search for the perfect kid-sized gloves that will make my little Cinderella and Elsa absolutely giddy with happiness on October 31st. Turns out I don’t hate being domestic, I just hate being too busy to enjoy it.

I also joined a swim team and two weeks ago I had my first legit practice in 25 years. Naturally I haven’t been back since, but whatever. Baby steps. And I’ve found a great organization to volunteer with. If you’re interested in child welfare and want to see an aggressive, optimistic and visionary plan for finding homes for 30,000 foster kids by the year 2020, please check out http://www.untilthelastchild.com. If you’re mean and heartless, don’t bother. And if you want more tips on nesting, just let me know. I’ll get them for you as soon as I find my other kid.

 

 

So About That Homework…

Dear Teacher,

I have a confession.

Actually I have several but I’m sure you’re not interested in hearing about the cupcakes I ate last night or the recurring dream about my dentist. The confession you’ll be most interested in relates to the promise I made to you in June. You know, the one where I said I would practice reading and writing with my oldest daughter, your student, every day this summer? Well that didn’t exactly happen, and here’s why.

First, you might remember that we adopted another little girl right at the end of the school year. Needless to say the adjustment was a bit overwhelming and what passed for routine at chez Millard quickly descended into chaos and anarchy. Structure and good intentions went out the window faster than you could say “stop throwing grapes at your sister.” Despite my best intentions to carve out daily reading and writing time, we were sidetracked by that pesky little thing called “life” (an umbrella term for stuff like cat vomit on the carpet and dog poop in the living room. Also Netflix). As we adjusted to being a family of four instead of three, practicing capital letters and figuring out what five fish plus two fish equals kind of fell by the wayside. Sorting out ownership of toys and clothes and planning for a summer getaway to promote family bonding (and day-drinking) took precedence over graduating to chapter books and two syllable words.

Even though you suggested many ways to “make learning fun”, I still failed you. To be fair, my daughter is now reading the back of the cereal box every morning and combing through the cupboards looking for words that are easy to sound out, such as “Jam” and “Tam-pon”. But the reading of the street signs? Bad idea. I’m certain I’ve caused at least three accidents by slamming on the brakes when screams of “I CAN’T SEE” assaulted me from the back seat. And helping with the grocery list? No offence, but if I had the patience to spell “carrots”, “wine” and “boxed brownies” out loud, not to mention a spare two hours to complete this exercise, I might-MIGHT-be less of an abject failure in both motherhood and culinary arts.

I didn’t stress too much about these first few weeks of summer because I was certain that once we got to the cottage we’d get the learning happening. Long lazy days with no plans and no urban distractions would be PERFECT for playing school, I thought. It will be a good opportunity for one-on-one time, I thought.

Except it seems that I miscalculated my willingness to sit inside spelling and adding while the sun shone outside. Also overestimated? My daughter’s desire to sit at the kitchen table instead of on the beach. I can’t sugar-coat this for you, Teacher. During the five weeks we’ve been here we didn’t open a single workbook or pick up a single pencil. Simply put, my daughter didn’t learn squat about reading and writing this summer.

Wave Watching: B

Wave Watching: B

Crab class: B

Crab class: B

Bubble Studies: A

Bubble Studies: A

However, if you’re willing to let us substitute “beach studies” and “welcoming a new sister” for reading and writing, I can proudly say that we’ve been racking up straight As in sand castle building, shellfish carcass identification, surfing, sea glass collecting and discreet ocean peeing. I’d also give us a solid B- in sharing a room, forcefully rehoming hermit crabs and personal hygiene (see ocean peeing). So while our book learning has suffered, our life learning has not, and I figure as long as I keep buying cereal, everything will be fine.

 

Patience is a Virtue. Until you get electrocuted.

Everything was going fine until I got electrocuted.

Yup, that’s how we started a 36-hour east coast solo parenting mission. With electrocution.

Actually, it began with me making a promise to myself that I would be more patient with my children so this story isn’t ALL bad.

We’ve had visitors for two of the last three weeks and while they’ve all been wonderful (no, really) the lack of privacy, mostly cloudy weather and living in an 800-square foot cottage have taken their toll on my mental health rendering me a tad snappy with the little people who call themselves my children.

Full disclosure: patience is not one of my strong suits, even at the best of times. I’m the kind of person who thinks instant coffee takes too long, who wonders why the first car in the advance green lane is so slow off the mark, who has broken more than one appliance by forcing it to stop before its cycle is complete. So when it comes to small children, I tend to get a bit murdery over things like baby talk, rapid-fire “why is that plate blue”-type questions, and hysterics over spiders so small they are invisible to the naked eye.

Maybe it’s because I have zero experience with kids under four and have never learned to love and appreciate the baby stages. Or maybe I’m just an asshole. Either way, I think God knew what she was doing when she gave me two four-year olds instead of infants because I’m a much better mom when my children are not acting like children.

Don’t get me wrong, I think babies and toddlers are amazing. Every time I see a bassinet or a snowsuit with ears my good ovary practically explodes. And I can appreciate how nice it is to have a little tiny being that depends on you for everything and actually gives a rat’s ass about your opinion. But as much as I tell myself I have to appreciate these years where they’re small and impressionable and gentle, I sometimes find it really difficult to step back, summon my zen and live in the “poop” / “vagina” / mind-numbing cartoon / selective-hearing / milk-spilling moment.

But enough about me.

With Daren on his way back to Toronto for a night, I woke up to a picture-perfect day of bright sunshine and calm water – one of those days the maritimes gives you once or twice a month, if you’re lucky. So it felt like the right time to give myself the “today is a new day / cherish the little things / don’t be such an ogre” speech.

This lasted through breakfast and even into the late morning, as we headed to the barn for Harmony’s riding lesson. As Harmony was tacking up, Leila asked if she could go and see the horses out in the field. At this point, two things happened. First, I thanked heaven for blessing me with ONE child who bothers to ask my opinion. Second, I made the curious decision to touch the fence myself deciding, apparently, that this would be better than simply staying away from it.

Needless to say there was a rather strong electrical current running through said fence and upon touching it I received a nice little morning pick me up, along with a mild heart attack. The entire incident resulted in a minor setback in my Kumbaya attitude but the presence of my eyebrows helped get things back on track.

And tomorrow is another day.

 

 

Dear Daren…

It’s been 7 days since you escaped left for the cottage. I hope you and your buddies are having an AWESOME time golfing and that the weather has been spectacular. I hope you’re getting lots of sleep and enjoying many delicious meals and adult conversation. Don’t forget to try that new seafood place we talked about!!

Not much is new here. The girls have now memorized the entire soundtrack from Frozen and sing it to each other every night, substituting key words with “poop” or “vagina”. Last night they fought for 25 straight minutes about whether dolphins or mermaids were better. I’m not sure who won because I was smashing my head into the concrete and could not hear, but it seemed pretty heated.

Yesterday Harmony asked “why?” when I told her she should not open the door of a moving car, so I’m pretty sure we made the right decision to send her to summer school. Speaking of which, a bunch of artwork came home on the last day and I saved it for you in the recycling bin.

Good news about the plumbing! It was NOT a diseased muskrat after all. Turns out they had not been flushing the toilet in their bathroom for a few days (thank you environmental science unit!) so we had a talk about conserving water in more practical ways. And speaking of water … here’s what went down in the pool this afternoon:

This is Harmony crying because Leila accidentally hit her in the head with a golf ball. Where did those come from I wonder???

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This is Leila crying because Harmony yelled at her for hitting her in the head with a golf ball:

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And this is the toad who had the misfortune of hopping into our yard but mercifully kept them busy for the next 5 hours. Expect a call from PETA.

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And this is me, taking my first selfie just for you.

You wish

You wish

Can’t wait to see you on Monday. Don’t be afraid to bring wine to the airport.

Your loving wife.