Saturday, December 27, 2008

Becoming an Alaskan Girl

For awhile, I worried Mitike had lost the sun.

Transported from eastern Africa half-way across the planet and then northwest to a small city in southeast Alaska, she now lives in a place where sun-sightings are cause for local newspaper articles and animated sidewalk conversations. She now lives in a temperate rainforest -- cool and misty most of the year, except when it's cold and snowy. Watch her: after only five months in her new home, she insists that she cannot leave the house without hat, mittens, coat, snowpants, boots.

Mourning the loss of warmth and golden light for her, I decide we need to visit a friend in California. In the Juneau airport, someone asks, "Why are you going to California?" at the exact moment my toddler is standing at the window excitedly pointing to some slightly brighter rain clouds. "Look, Mama!" she cries, "SUNSHINE!" I look at the stranger. "Ah, I see," she says, her brow furrowed as if TK has a medical condition.

And yes, California kept its bright promise -- TK and I strolled down the sidewalk in our sandals, coatless and hatless, and smelled purple and pink flowers; we zoomed down slides free of frost; we fed ducks on the edge of unfrozen lakes; we sat outside at a coffee shop and wriggled our bare toes. "Sunshine -- isn't it beautiful?" I repeated again and again, and my sweet girl would nod, mimicking the way I closed my eyes and soaked it all in.

But when we returned home to Juneau -- just in time for Christmas -- we returned home to SNOW, that fluffy, glistening, bright, white amnesia-causing beauty. Now TK trundles happily after her older friends, her little purple snowsuit impeding her usual stride -- and then the deep snow tripping her. She nestles beneath a fleece blanket on the sled and shouts, "More, more!" as I pull her down the snowy sidewalk. She and I zoom down the sledding hill together on our orange sled, TK laughing, her hands up like she's on a roller coaster. Sunshine seems completely unimportant, suddenly.

Then tonight, in a burst of Alaskan craziness, TK decided to strip off all her clothes (diaper, too), put on her snow boots, encourage Katie to do the same, and then run out into the snow. The two girls did a silly dance out there, lit by the purple icicle lights hanging from our house's roof edge, laughing, laughing. The air was cold, and dark -- it gets dark at about 3:30 p.m. this time of year -- and the unplowed snow on either side of the girls easily cleared TK's head. TK shook her bum and then waved her hands back and forth until I gathered her into my arms and pulled her back inside. "More, more!" she asked, giggling.

This is not a girl who is pining for warm sunshine. This is an Alaskan girl -- already so in love with our weird dark, cold, snowy landscape that the only sensible thing to do is to run outside naked and perform a silly dance.

At least she doesn't know how to make snow angels yet.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Brown Eye-YAH-Voes Are Beautiful, Too

Mitike and I just had our first mother-daughter talk about skin color. I know -- she's only 2. And I know -- research shows that children do not begin noticing skin color until about age 3, and that they do not possess an awareness of "race" as an idea until 4 or 5. But there we were -- TK perched on the potty, me sitting across from her on the step-stool -- talking about how brown skin is just as beautiful as peach-colored skin.

It's Disney's fault, of course -- and Costco's. In an attempt to save money on diapers, I purchased an enormous cost-saver box of toddler pull-ups, only to open the box at home and find that half the diapers had blonde-haired, blue-eyed, peach-skinned Cinderella plastered across their fronts. The other half of the diapers -- in a Disney attempt to be more multicultural, I suppose -- placed red-haired Ariel and black-haired, brown-skinned Jasmine just behind Cinderella. English-major Mommy read this message: Cinderella is still the one to which you should all aspire, little diaper-wearing girls, but we suppose these girls are okay, too.

I opened the box with TK standing right next to me -- clapping her hands with joy to see all the beautiful princesses. "Pretty!" she exclaimed. "Pretty!" My heart sank. I had already screwed up! I had unwittingly opened the door to a world I didn't want my beautiful little girl to encounter until she firmly and ardently believed that her brown skin, brown eyes, and black hair were unquestioningly, undoubtedly beautiful. I bit my lip, watching TK joyfully pull princess diapers from the box.

"TK," I said suddenly. "I'm going downstairs for a sec. I'll be right back."

She barely heard me. Cinderella's blue-eyed gaze had already begun to work its spell. I had to move fast. I ran down the stairs and into the kitchen, where we keep two tubs of markers and crayons. TK calls them "eye-YAH-voes". I grabbed all the brown ones I could find, and then dashed back upstairs.

TK's eyebrows went up at the sight of the eye-YAH-voes. She knew the rule was to keep them in the kitchen. "Mama?" she asked. I smiled and then scooped her up -- she clutched a Cinderella diaper in her hands -- and set her gently on the potty.

"Let's make Cinderella beautiful," I said, and handed TK a brown crayon. I picked up a brown permanent marker, and proceeded to draw swirly brown curls over Cinderella's blonde hair. TK giggled and began to scribble all over Cinderella's face. "More, Mama, more!" she laughed. We scribbled all over the diaper, making it -- well -- ugly.

THIS was how I was going to teach my daughter that her skin color -- the loveliest color of coffee with a bit of milk -- was beautiful? This was more of a lesson in graffiti, or in modern art. Or worse, this was calling too much attention to an issue of which she would not be aware for years.

I looked down at the diaper that lay stretched between my lap and TK's. It was almost completely brown now -- an unfortunate color for a diaper. I took a deep breath, dismayed at my first failure as a "white" momma to give my "black" child a healthy racial identity.

"All done eye-YAH-voe!" TK handed me the crayon and then held the diaper up proudly, tilting it at different angles, as if she were studying it. "Beautiful!" she proclaimed finally, and I started to laugh. I touched her hands and her face and her little feet and murmured, "Beautiful, too." She nodded seriously, then parroted, "Beautiful, too."

The Cinderella diapers are gone, now -- peed into, pooped on, thrown in a plastic bag and then hurled into the Juneau landfill. Now TK wears diapers with pink and green dragons on them -- and she still insists on coloring the dragons brown while she sits on the potty. My Costco purchase seems only to have increased TK's range of artistic mediums.

But the other night at bedtime, as we read the book "Amazing Grace", TK gently touched the page where the 11-year-old African American protagonist stands up in class to volunteer to be Peter Pan. "Beautiful," TK murmured. "Beautiful." And although my little girl applies that new-found adjective to chalkboards and the sides of buses and restaurant menus and the swirly design seagull droppings make on the dock, she means it when she uses it.

I just hope the understanding sticks.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

To Mitike: Remember Nov. 4, 2008

Dear Mitike,

On November 4, 2008, when you were almost 2, a man named Barack Obama was elected president of the United States of America. You won't remember crowding into the polling booth with me, Tim, and Katie. You won't remember the anxiety that swirled around you all day from hopeful adults who stopped each other in school hallways, in the public library, in Marine Park, just to say, "Do you think he'll win?". You won't remember the way you chanted, "Obama! Obama! Obama!" with me as we walked down the sidewalk together at noon -- still hours before the first polls would close.

You won't remember the way we crowded into a neighbor's house that evening, shared chili and bread and lentil stew, and watched -- our breath held -- as Obama's electoral numbers creep up and up. And you won't remember the way we all counted down to the closing of the west coast polls, or the way everyone in the room threw their hands in the air and shouted joyfully, "Obama!", or the way we all ran out into the street with pots and pans and wooden spoons and drummed our happiness for the Alaskan night to hear. You ate your blue-frosted cupcake and smiled at everyone, happy everyone was happy, glad everyone loved the word you loved: "Obama, Obama, Obama."

But Mitike, my dear, happy daughter, you must remember this day. And because you will not, I will mold it into words for you -- I will give it to you here, the soft clay of a moment shaped and fired into a bowl that holds a future.

The others in the room last night watched you lovingly, Mitike, thinking -- as I was -- how particularly important this election was for you, a child of color adopted from the African country that neighbors Obama's father's own Kenya. This United States of America, Mitike, has a difficult and painful past when it comes to people of color -- a past that will anger and sadden you when you learn about it someday. You may never fully realize how fortunate you are to live now, instead of then. You may never fully appreciate just what it means that a country that once sanctioned slavery, that once claimed black people were merely 3/5 of a whole, that once prohibited black people from voting or even drinking out of certain water fountains, has just chosen a black man as its president.

As a white woman, Mitike, I cannot fully appreciate it myself. That's why I'll make sure I'm never the only one telling you these stories. But I will say: remember this election, Mitike, because -- for the first time in U.S. history -- we chose a person of color as our highest leader.

But remember this election, too, Mitike, because President-Elect Obama's mother had peachy-tan skin like mine, which matters because it means Obama has spent his life navigating both his "white" and "black" identities, like you will. Add "Kenya" to "black": another identity to navigate, as Ethiopia will be another for you. Add "Hawaii" and "Indonesia" for Obama -- you'll add "Alaska" and other places we'll live; add Obama's identities as politician and lawyer, as husband and father, now as president -- you'll add yours, and among them will be "woman", "daughter". Remember this election, Mitike, because we chose for our highest office a human being who has embraced all these layers of himself, who has sought to weave them together for a whole self -- who knows that to reject any one of those identities would be to be incomplete and a less than authentic participant in the world.

Most of all, my sweet daughter, remember this election because of the way it echoes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who dreamed of a world in which his children were judged "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." Remember this election, Mitike: while it is historically significant that Barack Obama is black, and while it is personally significant for you that Barack Obama is half Kenyan and half "white", it is most significant that our nation chose Obama for his ideas -- for his convincing message of hope and change -- and not for his skin color.

I hope that by the time you read this, Mitike, you will be surprised that Obama's election felt so monumental to me. I hope you will be accustomed to a country led by people of all ethnicities, by men and women, by members of many religions and backgrounds and preferences. I hope, by the time you read this, our country will be a global leader in peace and conservation, committed to working with other countries for the good of the world and not to serve power or greed. After yesterday's election, I even believe that hoped-for world is attainable.

Your eyes were drooping when Obama stood to give his acceptance speech at the podium in distant Chicago. While we all strained to hear Obama's words, you struggled in my arms, murmuring, "Upstairs, Mama. Milk." But you asked me to pin your Obama button to your pajamas, and your last words before sleep were "Obama, Obama, Obama." I think you understood, somehow, that this was an incredible day. Or maybe you were just excited about your first cupcake. What mattered, Mitike, was that, as your eyes closed and you fell into sweet sleep, your mama breathed more easily, feeling, for the first time in her life, like her country might be heading in the direction its ideals intend. Remember this election, Mitike -- it may mark a shifting tide, a change that will give you a better world in which to live -- as a woman of color, as a daughter of Africa, as an adopted person, as a human being.

I love you, TK. That is the reason this election matters most for me.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Patience's Limit is at 2 a.m. in the Morning

At 2 a.m. in the morning, I am not a good mama. I am not patient or kind, or loving or tender. I am not playful or silly; I am not full of guidance or knowledge. I’m just tired. I just want to go back to sleep.

My almost-2-year-old daughter, Mitike, doesn’t understand this at all. During the day, her mama laughs with her, and throws her up in the air; she encourages her to talk and talk, and she pulls out all kinds of interesting toys for them to enjoy together. During the day, her mama thinks Mitike is hilarious and endearing and sweet and cuddly.

In the darkness of 2 a.m., though, Mitike’s mama frowns when Mitike starts talking; she lifts her finger to her mouth and whispers, “Shhh. Sleep now. Shhh”; she shakes her head disapprovingly when Mitike crawls out of bed and pitter-patters over to her favorite books and toys. Over and over, Mitike’s 2 a.m. mama picks Mitike up and lays her back in bed – less and less sweetly and more and more insistently each time.

At 2 a.m. in the morning, Mitike’s mama is pathetically and entirely human.

In two months of parenting this sweet and amazing little person who is my daughter, I’ve mostly been awed by her. But, as Ali often reminds me, Mitike is still two years old. Though she will sit happily beside me in a coffee shop for an hour, though she will tirelessly wander Alaska’s outdoors with me, and though she is the kindest and most generous tiny person I’ve ever known, her two-ness still manifests itself once in awhile– occasional tantrums at naptime, middle-of-the-night attempts to play instead of sleep, silly jealousy of my attention – even to the microwave, crazy crying because she was not allowed to hold some obscurely dangerous thing, like a jar of cayenne pepper, or a hot iron.

It’s in those moments that I realize with dismay that my patience actually has a limit – even for my sweet little daughter.

Witness: one afternoon, after a trip to Costco and then a visit to Tim’s class’s field trip to the salmon hatchery, Mitike began sobbing as I took off her coat. Over and over, she cried, “Where’d it go? Where’d it go?” She was inconsolable – hitting at me, throwing her toy car across the room, sobbing enormous tears that streamed down her face. I assumed she was tired, scooped her up and took her upstairs. Her crying escalated. She thrashed around on her bed, hitting the walls, sobbing “Where’d it go? Where’d it go?” I stared at her in dismay – she looked insane -- nothing like the little girl with whom I spend most of my time. I ran through a mental checklist of her special things: we had Bunny with us in bed, she was clutching her toy car and her toy helicopter, all three of her Obama campaign buttons were secured to her shirt. Nothing was missing. She continued to sob. Every time I moved to comfort her, she hit me or tried to scratch me. Now I was upset – and confused. I began to cry, too, and then my patience ran out. I took her by the elbows and shook her once, but firmly: “WHAT DO YOU NEED?” Of course, she began to cry even harder. I scooped her up (not very gently) and hurried downstairs and out the door to the car. I threw open the car door and gestured angrily to the inside: “WHAT do you NEED?”

And she stopped crying. She peered into the car’s interior, saw the pile of Costco groceries we had purchased hours earlier, and breathed a deep sigh: “There it is, Mama!” She smiled up at me, her tears magnifying her brown eyes. We went back upstairs, she let me lay her down in her bed, and she fell asleep in ten minutes.

I spent all of naptime feeling like an awful mother. The poor child had just wanted to make sure we’d brought the food home, and I had lost my patience with her.

Or return us to 2 a.m. in the morning. Mitike has been awake for over an hour. First she wants warm milk (“Mawk please, Mama?”), which I happily get for her. She cuddles up to me and lies still for about 2.3 seconds. “Caca,” she whispers in my ear. “Caca.” I want to encourage the potty-training, so I fall for the ruse. I lift her up and carry her to the bathroom, where I unzip her pjs, undo her diaper and set her on the potty. In accordance with a sleep book I read, I do not turn on the lights and I do not make eye contact with TK – the sleep book insisted toddlers will fall easily asleep again if parents do not encourage them to play during nighttime wakings. TK finally tires of sitting on the potty in the darkness and whispers, “All done.” I lay her back in bed. She lies still for 3.4 seconds this time. “Baby beluga, Mama?” I do not respond – I pretend I am sleeping. “In the kitchen!” she says hopefully. I still do not respond. She struggles free from my arms and pitter-patters over to her toy kitchen, where she proceeds to cook a plastic hamburger in her tiny frying pan. Normally, I would find this incredibly endearing; at this moment, I have – again – entirely lost my patience. I stand up, walk over to her, sweep her up and plop her down onto the bed. “Sleep,” I mutter, and I can feel my clenched teeth. I am too tired. Then I actually wrap my arms around her and firmly hold her there -- though she struggles again to get free – and let her whimper-cry herself to sleep. Ugh.

As she finally begins to breathe deeply, I again feel like a mother who is in dire need of patience lessons. I want my daughter to fall asleep every time knowing her mama loves her – not like she’s restrained in a mama straight jacket.

What would I do if, instead of TK, I was supposed to parent one of those toddlers I see at Juneau’s indoor play area – you know, one of those toddlers who is always screaming red-faced at their parent, or who is throwing sharp objects at another child? My toddler is extraordinary – I am constantly thankful. If I lose my patience in the rare times she behaves like a normal 2-year-old, I’ll never make it through her teenage years.

I've confided my worries about my lack of patience to my friends who are mothers -- who have survived or are surviving their own children's toddlerhoods. They've hugged me and then laughed kindly, telling me stories of how their own toddlers' limit-pushing drove them to startling cliffs: one woman kicked her son off the bed in her frustration; another locked herself in the bathroom to shout the "f" word over and over; a third took a day off of work to remove every single item from her daughter's room as a punishment for her behavior; a fourth strapped her toddler in the stroller, gave her a pile of unhealthy snacks, and jogged in the cold rain for two hours so she could calm down. Toddlers drive even the kindest, most serene women to a kind of insanity.

And then I think about what my friend Becky says about parenting toddlers – that it’s like working for an irrational boss who puts work assignments in front of you at odd hours, when you’re feeling your worst, and demands he needs them done NOW. No one’s capable of good work in that environment – all one can do is struggle through and hope for the best.

In other words, I’m learning slowly that motherhood’s about forgiving myself -- again and again and again. It's about telling myself that my lapses in patience and tolerance are okay, as long as I wrap my arms around my little girl and love her, still; as long as I love myself, still. It's not easy, especially for this lifelong perfectionist. I’ve read many, many books on parenting and adoption and racial identity, but now -- in the midst of it -- I see motherhood doesn’t contain “right” and “wrong”. It contains human beings – human beings struggling to love each other tenderly, even at 2 a.m. in the morning.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Dreaming in Three Languages

“Mama!” TK calls from the top of the stairs. It’s 6:45 a.m., and the house is still Alaskan-October dark. I stumble to the bottom of the stairs and look up. My silly little girl is smiling expectantly, her arms extended to me. “Downstairs, Mama?” I nod, and climb to gather her in my arms. She leans in and kisses me all over my face. “Hi, Mama, hi!” Then she points toward her dark room and whispers, “Shh. Bunny asleep. Shh.”

What’s incredible in this moment is not so much TK’s happy waking demeanor – though that brightens every one of my mornings – but the fact that she has learned to use so much of the English language in only six weeks. Six weeks ago, my daughter heard her Ethiopian nannies speak only Amharic, Ethiopia’s written language. Three months before that, she had only heard Hadiya, her birth family’s language.

And now she gains at least two English words a day. She strings them into sentences with creative syntax; she imitates my intonations and my gestures. She explores language’s geography with a true explorer’s glee. When I pointed to the Mendenhall Glacier on our hike a couple weeks ago and said “glacier,” Mitike spent the next half an hour chanting the word – “GLASH-er, GLASH-er” – as if she wanted to taste it on her tongue, to touch it the way she stretched out her small hand to touch the spongy sphagnum moss on an alder tree.

As her mama, I’m simply amazed at how rapidly she is learning to communicate. As a teacher, I’m proud, though I think her aptitude is due to her strong-willed determination, not my instruction. As a writer, I’m witnessing an ongoing found poem – composed daily from the world TK experiences.

The poem begins with Mitike’s first word: "ababa", a baby-babble version of "abba", the Hadiyan word for “father” – a word Mitike carried from the tukul in which she was born in southern Ethiopia to an orphanage in Addis Ababa (where the nannies spoke Amharic, not Hadiya) to a yellow house in Juneau, Alaska (where everyone spoke English, with a smattering of Spanish). How does a toddler keep a word – how does she clutch it tightly in her small hands, the way she clutches the day’s chosen toy? She points to a Time magazine cover of Barack Obama and she shouts, “Ababa!” She insists Mama check out the library book Uh-Oh again and again, so she can point to the brown-skinned grandfather on the last page and whisper, “Ababa. Ababa.” She falls in love with chanting the word “Obama” at a rally because of its phonetic similarity to that precious Hadiyan word she first knew.

In the poem’s second line are the Amharic words – small revelations of orphanage care: "woh" (baby-babble version of “WOO-ha” for water), "a-MY-aye" (the word for “mother”, which TK called her favorite nannies and now calls me and Ali), "caca" (which Amharic-speakers inherited from the Italians, who briefly occupied Ethiopia), and "oh" (baby-babble version of “ah-woh”, which means “yes”).

Mitike the poet begins a new stanza. In the quiet blank space between the second and third lines, she furrows her tiny brow at the pale-skinned woman murmuring strange new words in her ear. When she falls asleep at night, it is to this woman’s singing – and even the lilt and lift of the music is different from everything she has known.

In the third line, the poet writes just one word – her first English word, and exactly the word a smiling, sparkly little girl should learn first: "yay". “Yay!” she calls out suddenly at the Addis guesthouse, when her new mama has just balanced an entire tower of Duplo Legos. She raises her arms, like she has seen the new mama do. “Yay, yay!”

"Mama" in the fourth line. For days, “mama” described a thin photo album I mailed to the orphanage back in June, when I completed my acceptance paperwork. TK slept with it, carried it everywhere, showed it to people and said solemnly, “Mama.” Then she would call for me: “Aye-AY!” Gradually, she realized I was the mama in the photos, and she gave Ali the name Aye-Ay.

The poem picks up its pace. Water – to drink, to stomp my feet in, to watch fall from the sky, to point out to Mama and hear her say “ocean”. Apple – for all fruit remotely round, regardless of size. Photo – for all cameras. Home (she says “hah-mm!"), which she exclaims with joy every time we walk in the door.

Now nonsense words she has made up: "eye-YAH-vo" for all writing utensils, "boppo" for food, "gossie" for balls and socks and her brother.

Now the poem’s words run together, as TK learns faster and faster: Helicopter – birdies – airplane – car (she says “nah-car”) – juice – milk (she says “mawk”) – coffee – two – three – one – I’llcomeback! – Iwuvyou – Good night! – off – uppy! – down! -- alldone – allgone -- puppy – kitty cat – fishy – coatandhatcoatandhat -- BunnycacacacaBunny? – asleep – Bunnyasleepshhh – Katieasleepshhh – I’llcomeback! – eat? – cookie – please? – thankyouMama – you’rewelcome – phone – Nanaphone? – IwuvyouI’llcomebackgoodnight! – bye-bye – hello -- brushyourteeth! -- bearwhere'dhegobear? -- GLASH-er! -– hi, mama, hi – Comeon! Comeon, Tim, comeon! -- onetwothreeweee!

The poet yawns – “Baby Beluga, Mama?” It’s time for bed. We’ll sing the Raffi song together -- she'll point out the glacier on one of the pages -- and then she will drink her warm milk and point to the light: “Off please, Mama!” I’ll cuddle her close while she fiddles with the two Obama campaign buttons she insists I pin to her pajamas and then – finally – falls asleep. In what language will she dream? All three? Barack Obama campaigning on the tukul’s doorstep, the Addis Ababa nannies waving to the seagulls from a boat in Alaska, her mama lifting her onto her shoulders in the warm Ethiopian sunshine. . .

Friday, October 10, 2008

Mitike for Obama!

Tim, our 8-year-old, shook his head bemusedly the other morning as he watched Mitike dance around her bedroom in her pajamas, patting the “Alaskans for Obama” button she insists I pin to her clothing at all times and waving a toy piano while she chanted loudly, “Obama! Obama! Obama!”. “If adults acted like toddlers,” Tim said softly, an affectionate smile on his face, “they’d be crazy.”

To explain the Obama button: last weekend, TK attended a Barack Obama rally with me and Ali. She marched proudly between us, chanting, “Obama! Obama! Obama!” Six days later, she still hasn’t parted with her campaign button. When I unpinned it one evening after she fell asleep, fearful of the safety pin opening in the night, I woke to TK’s small voice on the baby monitor, asking plaintively, “Where’d it go? Where’d it go?” As soon as the button was pinned back on her PJs, she fell asleep again, murmuring, “Obama, Obama, Obama.”

My mom shared this story with a friend, and the friend mused with Obama-hope, “If only 2-year-olds could run things.”

I spend all day with a 2-year-old – and often with several -- so I can imagine that world quite well. Let’s replace all members of the legislative, judiciary and executive branches of the U.S. government with 2-year-olds. The U.N. asks our governments to sign a perfectly reasonable treaty that would reduce carbon emissions. NO! our government replies in true 2-year-old tantrum style. Oil, now! The toddler government proceeds to grab oil from other countries’ hands. An ambassador from the Sudan describes the dire humanitarian situation there, but our government has not developed empathy yet. Instead, we pound our spoon on the table. More, more, more!

Or, instead, let’s just replace our two candidates for president (and their running mates) with 2-year-olds. While the nation watches, they engage in parallel play for awhile, seemingly happy. Then they suddenly realize they both want the same toy. A struggle ensues. One toddler bites another; another toddler scratches. They’re all screaming for Mommy, and the media answers. But 2-year-olds don’t have much vocabulary yet. They can’t accuse each other of domestic terrorism or spin facts and misquote statespeople to fool Americans into voting for them. That’s adult stuff.

What Tim doesn’t know yet, in the sweet innocence of the age of 8, is that adults are just as crazy as toddlers – particularly if we’re talking about the people who run things. At least in a world run by 2-year-olds, conflicts would end with hugs and sweet kisses, tears dried by soft towels, hurt pride soothed with warm chili and a cuddly warm nap in the afternoon. At least in a world run by 2-year-olds, forgiveness comes quickly – the toy that was fought over an hour ago is forgotten, as a tiny girl and a tiny boy share animal cookies from the same bag. At least in a world run by 2-year-olds, a simple red balloon can still amaze, a butterfly can still astound, a toss in the air can still be the height of the day’s joy.

Of course, I know TK’s chanting of Obama’s name has nothing to do with the election. She loves the sound of the word – it sounds like “Mama” and like “Ababa”, the word for “father” and her first and only word in her first language (Hadiyisa, an indigenous and unwritten Ethiopian language). She loves the reaction she gets from other people when she proudly shows them her button. She’s two. She doesn’t know that Obama could salvage the windblown ship, that he could be the president who re-connects us to other nations and realigns our national priorities with our national ideals, that he could re-focus our country on the middle and lower thirds – instead of that richest third for which Bush loves to advocate.

Ask TK whom she wants to win the presidential election, and she’s as likely to shout, “Apple!” or “No!” as she is to shout “Obama!” But she’s also a person worth “listening” to. She kisses our 6-year-old gently on the face to wake her up in the mornings; she bobs her head to music and grabs our hands to dance, making sure we’re all included; she shares her food with whomever is nearby; she makes “drawings” for Tim and then watches his face to make sure he likes them; she pulls me and Ali close in a sweet and full hug, her arms around both our necks. She’d have some good input into national policy, though she’d probably shout “Caca!” at inappropriate times in meetings, and she would require an extra chair beside her for her beloved stuffed animal, Bunny.

Someday, I’ll tell Mitike the story of how she campaigned for Barack Obama in her own crazy toddler way. I hope I’ll also get to tell her that, in the year she came home to us from Ethiopia, our country elected its first black president. And someday – no matter what -- I’ll tell her that she could grow up to lead our country, too.

Someday. Right now, Mitike’s waving a dish towel to disco music, patting her Obama button and waving one little hand in the air – no less crazily than an adult with the same joyful hope that the world could – and should -- improve.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Parenting a Toddler: An Insane Wonder

Parenting a toddler falls somewhere between marveling at a miracle and watching an insane person, open-mouthed. I’ve only done this for a month now – I brought my sweet 20-month-old daughter Mitike home from Ethiopia at the end of August – but I’m astounded by the simultaneous insanity and beauty of toddlerhood, of motherhood, of this fierce love I feel for a creature who is very small and yet so big she fills every physical and emotional space of my days.

Mitike shows me the many things I miss, though I’ve always prided myself on being the writerly woman observant of small details. One day, while she sat on the kitchen counter eating breakfast, Mitike pointed out the window. “Yes,” I said encouragingly, glancing out the window, “a tree branch!” She shook her head and pointed again. “Yes, there’s the neighbor’s house.” I returned to my apple slicing. She shook her head and pointed again. Finally, I looked. There, on the smallest branch of the alder tree out the window, perched a hummingbird. “Oh!” I exclaimed, and caught TK’s eyes. She grinned at me. Finally, Mama had actually stopped to look long enough to actually see.

She reminds me of what I have forgotten to notice. Playing in the living room one morning, she suddenly began to clap her hands in the air and shout, “Yay, yay, yay, yay!” I laughed, convinced she was being silly, but her face held this look of absolute joyful wonder. “Yay, yay, yay, yay!” I re-focused my eyes. In the rays of sunshine streaming through the window, dust motes danced and swirled – it was these that she was watching move with the motion of her little hands. I can’t remember the last time I noticed how beautiful dust motes are – that they are not merely reminders of the kind of housekeeper I am.

Because Mitike cannot yet navigate the world with experience, she navigates it with emotion. She possesses a sense of people and places – of which ones are safe and which ones are not – that is far more finely-tuned than mine. The first moment we visited the public library, she struggled to get down and happily ran around, touching books, petting stuffed animals, grinning at the librarians. The first moment we entered a doctor’s office, she refused to take her coat off. She opens her arms wide to certain people, smiling her beautiful open-mouthed smile at them; she turns from others and hides on my shoulder. It is not arbitrary – upon later reflection, I realize that I have similar positive or negative feelings about those people.

Even more, TK navigates her new world with wonder. A stick is something to be examined closely – tasted, maybe – and then stuck into the sand. “Whoa, whoa!” she’ll call out when her stick draws in the sand. The ebbing and flowing waves on the beach might be water – she touches her hand to them to find out. Oh! Colder than the bath! A seagull dips low and she puts out her arms in imitation – then a floatplane motors overhead. She points. “Mama!” she seems to be saying, “they do the same thing!” She is an explorer; every discovery is the first one anyone has ever made.

But there is the part of raising a toddler that is far more like watching an insane person, open-mouthed. Suddenly, Mitike is crying – loud wailing, as if she is hurt. I rush to her, only to find she is crying because the balloon she was holding is now on the floor. “You can pick it up,” I tell her, and she does. Then she smiles. Then she is asking for help – “Hawp! Hawp!” I rush to her again. She looks panicked, and she is pointing at her head. I search wildly for any injury – but no, she just wants her stocking cap adjusted more to the right.

The little girl who watches the world with such wonder and joy is the same crazy person who insists on holding two things – one in each hand – at all times. She sleeps with strange objects – a bottle of cayenne pepper one night, a package of baby wipes another, a toy witch’s broom another, a whole orange (cradled in two hands) another. She cannot continue eating dinner if she sees a bit of food on the floor – “Caca, Mama! Caca!” she’ll call until I clean it up. Then she’ll sigh as if the whole world had been set right. If only it were that easy.

Already, I’m discovering how lucky I am, to get to parent this particular toddler. She is more weird than demanding, more communication-frustrated than tantrum-prone. She is generous – willing to share half-eaten cookies with other children or with adults she trusts. She is affectionate – kissing my cheek after she accidentally bonks it with the baby wipe container she is clutching. Her crying is short-lived. Most of her day, she laughs, and marvels, and reaches her small arms out to the world, wanting to discover more and more and more of it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Bringing Mitike Home

I met my daughter on the grey-blue carpet of a care center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in eastern Africa.  It was not a joyful reunion.  Her enormous brown eyes welled with tears as she kept her head down, trying to focus on the pile of toys she had gathered into the triangle of space between her splayed legs.  She was only 19 months old, but I could tell she possessed some understanding of what was about to happen.  Just when she had finally adjusted to this care center – so radically different from the grass-thatched hut she had left behind three months before – this pale-skinned lady had come – the same pale-skinned lady in the photographs the care center nannies showed her each evening.  The nannies would point at the photos of the lady and murmur, “Mama, Mama, Mama”, and now here was that lady, and here were the nannies chanting, “Mama, Mama, Mama.” 

She knew her own name already – the cayenne-pepper accent from the nannies’ lips:  “MIH-tee-kay!  MIH-tee-kay!”  She loved to run-toddle into those nannies’ arms and be hoisted high up in the air.  The care center had become her small world; she sensed that this “Mama” was about to take her from it.

I, on the other hand, had loved this small person for so many months – her photo creased and folded in my back pocket at all times – that I could not help feeling devastated when she did not reach for me that first day, or the second, or the third.  The moment I saw her referral photo last May, I knew with an eerie certainty that she was the little girl Ali and I were supposed to mother. Mitike didn’t seem to feel the same way.  By the second day, she grudgingly played with Duplo Legos with me, but then wailed when a nanny picked her up and put her in my arms. 

Then the third day, her favorite nanny put her in my arms and pushed us out the door and to the waiting mini-bus, where seven other families held their whimpering and screaming children.  Mitike seemed inconsolable.  I held her close and rocked her, murmuring soft words.

Watch her now, two weeks later, back in the U.S. in Juneau, Alaska:  she toddles around an indoor playground, laughing, her tongue out in a silly curl, her eyes bright.  Often, she turns to find me and beams, or she runs toward me with her arms out and jumps into my embrace, covering my face with kisses.  Then she jumps down again and toddles off to explore other things.  At home, she sips her milk and holds my gaze, stopping her slurping to smile at me; she zips up my jacket and laughs; she cuddles close to me when it’s time for quiet reading and nap.  In the mornings, she opens her eyes and smiles when she finds me in her vision. 

Other parents – parents of biological children – have trouble believing there was ever a day Mitike did not love me and reach for me as her mother.  And it’s true that – especially compared to other toddlers – TK is happy and good-natured, generous and loving, perceptive and appropriately cautious.  To others – and even to me, who knows her whole story – it seems she has always been well-loved and well-nurtured.

But then, her story confirms that.  Although her birth father had to bring her to an orphanage because he could not provide for her most basic needs – food, clean water, clothing – and because she was losing weight at a frightening pace after her birth mother’s death – she did not lack love.  When I traveled south to meet him, I presented him with a framed photograph of Mitike (opposite a photograph of me) and he held it close, murmuring, “De-NAH-may, de-NAH-may” (“beautiful” in Hadiyisa), like a prayer.  His eyes crinkled with laughter often, and I saw – in spite of his gaunt frame and his dire situation – a man who loved his little daughter dearly, who treasured her – so much, in fact, that he had been able to admit that he could not give her life.

I want her to be a good Ethiopian, he told me through the translator.  I want her to be generous and to welcome guests.  I want her to get an education.  Half a world and two weeks later, I watch her extend her small hand and offer some of her snacks to a friend’s 2-year-old boy.  I watch her smile sweetly at my friends when I hug them (her clue that they are people to be trusted).  I watch her eagerly reach for the stack of books I keep beside her bed.

But there is loss.  Who said adoption is both the happiest and the saddest thing?  Here is my little girl, giggling on the kitchen counter as she draws pictures in the baby formula she spilled everywhere.  She has already forgotten her sorrow to leave the care center nannies; her affection has transferred to me and Ali (she calls us both “Aye-AY” – a version of the Amharic “Ah-MY-aye”, which means “mommy” – “Mama” is the photo album the nannies used to teach her who I was).  She has already forgotten her fear when the mini-bus pulled away from the care center; she has already forgotten the way she furrowed her small brow in confusion when we boarded the plane in the Addis airport.

I’ve cooked spicy lentils and shiro for her; I’ve fed her chicken berbere.  I’ve hung Ethiopian art in her room, and I’ve filled her bookshelves with Ethiopian stories.  But I cannot make injera – the flat crepe-like sour bread Ethiopians eat with every meal – and TK does not agree with me that tortillas are a close substitute.  Tortillas crumble in her little hands, and she frowns, just as she frowns at the way American bananas taste – she peels another and another, taking little bites of each one, searching for the Ethiopian sweetness she remembers.

The rain of southeast Alaska is familiar to her, as are these cool temperatures – it was the rainy season in Addis when we left.  But the wind makes her laugh in surprise – she points at the way the grass flattens, at the way my hair flies every which way.  What will she say when the snow comes?  When the temperatures drop even more?  The rushing water in our creeks startles her – she cannot stop gazing up from her perch in the baby backpack to the tall tops of the spruce trees.  Across the meadow where we walk, she sees a frozen swathe of blue-white and shakes her head at it – glacier, I tell her, and she looks at me for a moment, then points up at a bald eagle flying overhead, then at a small floatplane.  She’s too young to miss the acacia and banyan trees, the streets crowded with donkeys and herds of goats, women clad in brightly colored scarves, men laughing with wide-open mouths, the 5 a.m. singing from the Christian Orthodox churches, the 6 a.m. call from the muezzin, the bananas hanging in bright bunches beside material and Tupperware and tools in the outdoor shops, the scent of ripe mango and berbere spice and simmering wat.  She’s too young to long for Ethiopia.  Already, after just two weeks, she helps me pull on her fleece hooded jacket and then happily extends her arms, as if to embrace her whole room, our whole house, this whole Alaskan life.  Ethiopia is a dream she had once.  She was hungry sometimes, and sad, and she laughed sometimes, and was happy.

Her birth father cannot imagine where she is now.  He knows her new mother is a teacher and the daughter of a farmer. . .and he believes he understands those two facts well.  But he cannot imagine my classroom with its two thousand books lining the shelves; he cannot imagine my father’s acres and acres of corn and soybeans; he cannot imagine my classroom computers or the way some of my students sulk about “having” to go to school or the national law that every American child attend school; he cannot imagine the speed and wealth of America.  He lives in a round hut made from sticks and mud, thatched with grass – a tukul.  He grows false banana (or enset) on a tiny plot of land, and struggles to feed himself and TK’s older siblings from the bread his eldest daughter forms from the plant’s root.  They are starving.  Meanwhile, TK ventures down a red plastic slide, copying my “Wheee!” with her sweet little voice.  For lunch, she drinks apple juice with her spicy lentils; now she naps beneath layers of cozy fleece, a stuffed bunny cradled in her arms.

Here is the sorrow.  TK will feel it again someday – the odd disconnect between the life she has now and the life she might have had – the two different planets on which she and her birth siblings live.  Now she will live, her birth father told me.  Now she will live.  My heart twisted.  Thank you for loving her, I whispered, and the translator repeated what I’d said in Hadiyisa.  Bless you, he responded.  Bless you.

It feels, suddenly, like TK has always been my daughter – like we have always woken to each other’s faces, like I have always listened to her babble or sung silly nonsense songs with her.  Her tears, now, are about how much she dislikes the car seat’s restraint, or about how much she wishes she could go into her older brother’s room and dismantle his Lego structure, or about how dearly she would like to stay up a little later and laugh some more with her older sister.  In my arms, she reaches for Ali and pulls her close, so we sandwich her between us.  It as if we have always loved her. 

Maybe we have.