Jul 29, 2014

How to Weather Hard Winters

One of my favorite books ever, like in my list of "top five", is The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

I've read that she originally titled it "the Hard Winter," but her publisher had her change it, because he felt it was too harsh, the concept of "hard" vs "long."

As many of you know, the stories Ingalls wrote were autobiographical; what we'd call "creative nonfiction," nowadays, though she is such an accomplished writer, they read like novels. This particular section of Ingalls life-story stands apart from the others in the "Little House" series because it depicts a very difficult time for her family and for her little town. In The Long Winter we read about what it is like to go through near-starvation, death of exposure, being isolated on the Dakota prairie, during a wild and terrible time, from every help except for what the settlers in their little town could provide each other.

Therefore, we read of bravery. Sacrifice. Blind, dogged courage. I have two favorite parts of the story. The first is when Almanzo Wilder goes with a friend into the wilderness, under threat of deadly blizzards, to find food for the citizens in the town. The second is more relevant to what I'm writing about today: when Pa goes into the Wilder boys' store and offers a quarter for some grain he's savvy enough to know is hidden in their walls. He doesn't ask. But he also doesn't fight for it. He goes in, quietly, humbly, and tells them to fill his bucket with wheat for a quarter, so his family can eat for another few days.

Laura is the able-bodied member of her family. The Ingallses didn't have any sons, and so often it is her, going out with her father and helping him with the necessary tasks. She works hard to help her family survive.

And they do. In the end, the train gets through because of spring melt and the help of hordes of men shoveling off the tracks, and they get their Christmas turkey several months late. This story sends a very clear message--to survive, you need to pull together. You need to support each other. The very best and the very worst sides of human nature come out when people are fighting to survive. And those who make it are those who support and serve each other and accept service in return. Pa was a proud man, but he went into the Wilder boys' store with a quarter and an empty bucket because he had children to feed. Almanzo was going to get through the winter just fine, but he went off into the dangerous wilderness to find more food because he knew he would not be able to watch his friends starve around him.


I think back on some hard times of my own. I think one of my biggest failings has been my inability to ask for or receive service. It is a matter of pride. Some of us have pride that involves comparison to others' appearances, possessions, residences, professions etc. That has never been my problem. I personally wouldn't mind living in a cardboard box on the side of the road if I had to, if my family were still happy and healthy and well fed. Some of my friends could attest to that... I have a mild (or not so mild) obsession with tents and camping and backpacking. What I love is the simplicity of carrying all that you need with you. Not needing much at all to get by. I've been very blessed, however, not to have to live that way as a necessity. Perhaps my perspective would be different if I did.

However that is also my problem and my own personal brand of unrighteous pride--that sense of simplicity, of being able to get by on my own; priding myself in independence from others. I have struggled, in my life, to accept service because I feel frightened at the thought of not being able to get by on my own. Of having to depend on others. What if they fail me? And what if I can't give them anything back in return? Does that make me a broken, incapable person who always takes but never gives? Does it make me selfish and self-centered, that people serve me?

I have, however, gone through seasons in my life just like that hard winter the Ingallses weathered, where accepting help was necessary to my survival emotionally, physically, etc. And I wouldn't have been able to accept it even then, if it weren't for Loli.

for Loli's sake, I accepted a lot of things.

After everything fell apart and I found myself a divorced single parent, full-time student, part-time employee, I realized I literally could not do it on my own. I needed, for instance, someone to watch her while I finished my degree, and while I earned the money necessary to feed, house, and clothe us. And even then, I didn't make enough money to do so on my own. My parents bought a condo, which I lived in, rent-free, for two years.

During this time, I had a difficult schedule--get up at 4:45, drive Loli to Santaquin (because it was the only childcare we both felt comfortable with), get to work by 5:45, work with dozens of women struggling with tragedy, emotional upheaval, overwhelming anxiety and depression until 6pm, drive back to Santaquin by 6:45, get home by 7:30, play with Loli for an hour and give her dinner, get her to bed by 9. That was three to four days of my week.

The other days I spent trying to take care of the "everything else", taking care of my little girl and focusing on her during the time I had with her and also on bills, car maintenance, cleaning, shopping for groceries, and, eventually, dating my husband.

I look back on those years and the feeling I get from them is just.... emergency. I was constantly high-strung, constantly putting out fires. Like when our only car broke and the shop told us it was a new head-gasket (turned out they were trying to get money... I took it somewhere else and they bled an air bubble out of the radiator for free), and I was at work trying to focus on my job while trying not to worry about transportation and trying not to worry about Loli and how she was doing and whether she was being treated right and whether she was eating and whether I was spending enough time with her.... you get the picture.

I look back on my own "hard winter" and wonder what it says about me.

I learned how to accept a little bit of help and service--the stuff I had to accept for bare survival. I wasn't, however, always the best employee. I was too stressed out. Stressed to the max. And in an environment where everyone is professional... where maybe a few are enduring their own "hard winters" but everyone keeps it all to themselves... it's not quite the same, I don't think. It's not a community pulling together. It's a few people floundering to themselves in a mass of humanity all trying to figure out how to be best at what they're doing.

I didn't do as well as I could have. Well, the thing is, I did as well as I *could* have, in the situation. But people I worked with didn't get the "best" me, if that makes sense. And neither did Loli.

I look back on those experiences and wonder how I could have functioned better. I think it would have involved going to people for help instead of staying stubbornly independent and to myself. The Lori Hacking story broke during that time. And I was feeling some very strong fears, angers, and grieving. What if I had gone to my supervisor and talked to her, instead of staying behind the nursing station all day and isolating and not talking to anyone, including the patients I was supposed to be helping? What if, instead of presenting a hard, blank face to the world and keeping a wall between myself and others, I was being honest and open and vulnerable. Like "here is what I have to do this week. Just so you know." And then letting people talk back about their own stuff, and commiserating, and strategizing together... that is the stuff of which friendships are made. Of which functional, supportive communities are made.

The thing is, it has been a hard journey for me to be able to be open that way. I think my problem is, if something difficult is going on in my life, my default is to blame myself for it, to believe that I deserve it. So I feel shame, and keep it to myself. I am working on that.

I have realized, however, that some people also do not welcome vulnerability. They would rather stay in their shells and struggle alone. They feel threatened by others' sharing.

And some want to serve, and not be served in return. To them (and to me, I'll admit it) being served is giving up too much control. When someone does something for you, what might be their motive? What do they expect from you in return?

You can think of it that way, or you can see it as a symbol of something much more powerful and important. We are all the vessels of God's grace for each other. Sometime, at some point in your life, you will go through a season (more likely multiple seasons) of needing the service of others. You can either accept it and be whole, or push it away and struggle and not be as whole as God would like you to be.

In order to be strong enough to serve others, you need to accept service yourself. That is the beautiful, (sometimes, it feels like, horrible, but really, like anything really difficult, it's redeeming), truth to it all.

And how do you think someone feels about you after they serve you? Let me tell you from experience. They love you more. ANd they love you in a way that is Godly--they love you as someone they have served. It's a sort of love that runs deep, that infuses your relationship with forgiveness and mercy and longsuffering.

As anyone who has read the LIttle House series knows, Almanzo Wilder eventually married Laura. And I have wondered... how much of that feeling, that warmth he had for her that lead him to court her, came from the incident of filling her father's empty bucket?

Jul 18, 2014

Moving On to the Next Great Thing

I have been having babies for a while, let's face it. I had a brief respite between marriages--Loli was four when Jaws was born. Jeff and I filled in that gap pretty thoroughly by bringing home two girls meant to be in our family that were born in another country when I couldn't have them myself. Yeah, some would object to my describing it that way, but that's how I feel things happened. Bella and MayMay are most certainly my daughters. The first time I saw their picture, I knew they were my daughters, and the sisters of the girls I had given birth to biologically.

Heavenly Father has a way of blessing you doubly when things have to come about through a veil of pain. These two girls ended up in my family where they belong, but along the way they collected another family who loves them dearly, and a rich, unique culture, which flavors and spices and blesses our family as well.

Since Jaws, though, I really haven't had a break. I've had a child under age two for the last solid eight years. And I haven't started realizing until recently, exactly how difficult it is to have children so young. They take all your attention. All of it. When they're infants, it's because you are holding and feeding them constantly. When they're a little older it's because you are making sure they don't die by rolling off stuff or falling down stairs or choking on things or drowning or being taken by people or gashing themselves with knives (several of my toddlers have had a fascination with knives.)

I'm realizing all this because we're sort of coming to the end of our planned family, Jeff and I. We talked, at the beginning, of having six children together. We're there. Another baby would make six for us since we married in 2005. (Nine total, of course.) And right now, I'm getting to that point of thinking of starting that process again--another kid. Possibly the last kid. Pending prayer and answers to prayer, of course.

In my religion, we believe that there are spirits up in heaven waiting for bodies. That to raise children right, with values, and love and covenants and saving ordinances inherent in our gospel, is the most important job we do. So for me, and others with my theology, the decision to *stop* having children is a very serious one. Perhaps stressful. Some are comfortable stopping when they feel their family is complete--they just feel good about it and don't question that. For others, it's an agonizing decision. And some feel that "stopping" isn't an option... they need to allow as many children to come as Heavenly Father will bring them.

Thus, Mormons and large families. (btw. I'm being honest and vulnerable here... no judgy comments about birth control or population control, please. I will delete them all!)

For me, the decision to be done has a bit more of an edge and urgency. My mother and i share a genetic condition that renders pregnancy dangerous. Because I knew about it before I started having children, I have been able to take preventative action and not suffer from the sorts of things my mother did having her children. But it is still dangerous. And the danger kind of multiplies with age. My mother had her last biological child at age 35, and nearly didn't make it. Her stake president, who was also her obstetrician, told her she needed to think seriously about permanent preventative action, because she needed to be around to raise her family.

I am grateful for my stake president.

I have had a strong feeling, from the time I was thinking of such things, that I also need to be done at thirty five. I turn thirty four this year. Do the math--one more kid. It works out nicely with the feelings Jeff and I have had on the issue.

But it makes my heart break a little, too. I was the two-year-old who would nurse her dolls, who though often about having babies, about motherhood. I couldn't wait to be a mom. And I have enjoyed my babies so much. If anyone is going to suffer from residual baby-hunger, it's me. I tell myself it won't be so long and I'll have grandbabies to enjoy, but it's not quite the same. It's not that symbiotic relationship--just a small, helpless, trusting creature and me. A piece of my heart, smiling whenever I smile at them, whose favorite thing in the world is to be close, to lie for long hours on my chest. Little hands. Little feet.

It came across to me really strongly this last week. I have been feeling, for a while, that I needed to put DavyJones on formula. And he has taken to it well, and it has made important things possible--I have needed some time in the temple, for instance. I have needed to spend a bit longer at my calling than an exclusively-nursing baby would allow.

And I needed to go to girl's camp this year.

It was a good experience, but my milk is now dry. My baby boy is no longer nursing. It breaks. My. Heart.

What if, I think to myself, this is the last baby boy. What if I never nurse another baby boy for the rest of my life. What if this precious experience is now over. There is something about my baby boys--they have the most "mushy" part of my heart, as I was explaining it to Loli the other day. (She responded with, Mom, I'd much rather have the strong part of your heart.) (Anyway.)

What if this is done.

Well, it will be done, soon. I'm into my "lasts," last time trying for a baby. And it will turn into, last time experiencing morning sickness. Last time getting that middle-trimester burst of energy, last time with a growing stomach, last time with those crazy, overwrought emotions that make me cry during cheesy commercials but have actually been welcome because often, I struggle to feel my real feelings. Last time waiting for labor, for a baby to be born. Last time holding a soft, damp, newly-born person close to me, seeing them look up into my face for the first time.

I plan on savoring it--all these "lasts." It's the only way I'll be able to move on; if I savor every single moment.

But there are also other sorts of thoughts I've been having. Like... Gee. It will be nice to be able to work outside for an hour and mow the lawn. It will be nice to go out and pick up the trash that blows across from the high school. To plan a garden, work on it every day, weed it, pay attention to it and have a chance at real vegetables. To take a bike ride when I need one... and to be able to bring all the kids with me. To be able to go on hiking trips and camping trips and to be able to take my kids swimming (projecting a few years into the future here) without having to keep an anxious, uninterrupted watch over at least two of them.

To be able to take time to have talks with my teenagers.

To not be so exhausted in the morning I can't function..... or at least, to be exhausted for different reasons. Staying up to talk with teenagers who come home, rather than being constantly interrupted to nurse.

Instead of being confined to the house with a baby who isn't going to be happy outside for long,to be able to go out and find Jeff, and whatever project he's working on, and work alongside him. And to have our children join us.

I'm leaving behind something very special... but moving on to something else Great, and equally special. This, I think, is the time we figure out who we are as a family. Develop our traditions, our way of relating to each other, the activities we enjoy doing together, getting big projects done together, being silly together... this is really, in a way, where some other things I have always looked forward to, begin.

Loli came into the Young Women's program this year. And as it always is with our family, once started, things happen fast... Bella next year. MayMay the next. Two years later, Jaws. We're moving on.

And it will be great.

Jul 7, 2014

Adoption and emotional integration.

So, I haven't done any adoption posts lately. Mostly that is because, as adjustment continues, the issues are less and less salient, and less noticeably adoption-related. Meaning, everything has filtered down and melded and become "the things my kids and my family work on together," and it is not often something we think about anymore, "this is because of the adoption. These are struggles related to that."

I have been thinking about adoption lately, however. Because of some things in my personal life, and also this clip posted recently on Facebook.

Helen Doss--the story she wrote of her family and their experiences. I read it over and over again as a child. My mother did, as well. I am certain it is a major influence in my decision to adopt--I grew up thinking of adoption as not only normal, but delightful and wonderful. Her family--all happy, so big and colorful and wonderful. I wanted that.

My mother did too. And now, however many years later, I have two Ethiopian daughters and two (soon to be three) Chinese sisters. I wonder how many families have come to be because of Helen Doss.

Adoption is hard. It's interesting, looking back on all the posts I have written over the last five years, remembering various stages, struggles, frustrations and heartaches.

First we went through teaching kids not to hurt each other, health concerns that were difficult and sometimes nasty (Lice, Ringworm, Giardia which I caught from MayMay while pregnant with Hazel, aftereffects of severe malnutrition and other things).

After that, though, it was all emotional. And I'd argue, much harder than the physical. Our adoption was wonderful--we didn't have any of the issues adoptive parents worry so much about, like sexual abuse or attachment disorders. And our girls are good, good girls.

But I am an introvert. New people are hard.

I love kids. A lot. Honestly. And I don't mind babysitting other peoples' kids. Before the adoption, however, watching others' kids was always a very stressful experience. It was painful. It's like, having someone in my house who wasn't my own kid, I was on eggshells all the time. I didn't feel like I could be me, have my time, do the things i'd normally do... I felt like I had to be a "perfect mom" or "perfect babysitter" for the sake of another person's child.

that's sort of how it felt for me for the first.... oh. Two years. Like I was babysitting. It was very stressful. The introvert in me shrunk away from interaction with these girls for quite a while. I forced myself to overcompensate... so they ended up getting even more attention than my biological kids for a while. In the effort to counter my own tendencies, I ended up becoming...

well. A better mom. More attentive. Paying more attention to detail. Not just falling into the ruts of my own past experiences, parenting and being parented. (Not saying I didn't have good parents, I did. I just am glad I have a fresh canvas to paint on, if that makes sense... I can make different kinds of mistakes and have different strengths, and not just feel compelled out of habit to do it a certain way.)

But let's just say. It has taken a really, really long time... that last stage of adjustment, so that everybody feels like they belong. So that I feel nothing but gladness that all my kids are around me and nobody's missing. So that I don't automatically react, emotionally, with more harshness when it's one of my adopted kids being unkind to one of my bio kids.

I think everybody is different. There are people who immediately mesh with new people...who can become best friends right away. There are also people who are natural adopters. You know them--the people who have a satellite of those who call them "mom" or "dad" because they fill that role for a lot of people. There's this lady who was on a billboard in Utah for several years--she fostered 112 children.

I'm not like that. I'm an introvert. My relationships form slowly, solidify slowly, and because of some of my experiences, trust and security is something that comes with agonizing slowness.

I think these last two years have been the final stage for me, for Jeff, emotionally. I was so glad when school got out this year. I feel so much peace when I'm in my living room, sitting on the couch, looking at all of my kids gathered around me. We are a family. Irrevocably. Emotionally, everybody is mine and I am theirs.

I think that, looking back on the process, I am very glad to Have MayMay and Bella in my life. I'm not sure, if I'd been able to look at it from the other side, knowing how hard it would be emotionally, that I would have been brave enough to go forward. Thinking about adopting again, my insides kinda twist up into knots.

But I am so glad I have Bella and MayMay. I am so grateful I have them. The thought of not having them is incomprehensible, and heartbreaking. I love all my children.

I know that adoption is never an issue you leave behind--for the rest of their lives, I will be talking my girls through the reality of their adoption. And reassuring them of my love for them.

And there will always be times I want to run away and go camping for a week. But that's just life, as a mother of lots of small children. It's not because of adoption.

Yesterday I went on a bike ride. Bella asked to come. I thought for a minute--my bike rides are solitary. My time. But I realized, suddenly.... I don't feel threatened at the idea of her coming. My time is her time, too, because she is mine. WE rode out to the canal and sat there for a while, completely silent, throwing stuff in and watching it float. And we rode silently back home. It was just the being together--us. And it was OK. Knowing myself, it amazes me that that was even possible.