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.