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.