(I know it's been a while, so I intend to make up for it by being long-winded. Grab some coffee. Let's chat.)
Six months ago today (4/29/13), we went to two orphanages and left with two children. We had done this several times in the spring, but today we were not to return. Six months ago today, Milcho and Vanessa left their orphanages to begin their journey to having a family. It all sounded so beautiful then. In reality...not so much. The week we spent in Bulgaria doing paperwork was a surreal rollercoaster. On the one hand, we finally had our kids. On the other hand, we couldn't understand anything they said, and they could not understand anything we said. The communication issue plus the fact that they did not know us at all and therefore did not see us as having any authority over them at all was a recipe for trouble. That first week was difficult from a parenting perspective, but it was further complicated by the fact that we were completely out of our element. We couldn't communicate, and we were uncomfortable with our surroundings because they were very unfamiliar. Many times we comforted each other with “It'll be better when we get home,” “Just wait until we are home,” etc. We let several parenting things slide just because we felt we needed to be on familiar turf to really be able to stand our ground.
One week later we made it home. Things didn't exactly improve like we'd thought. Tim had one more week off of work to stay home with me, but it was a VERY difficult week. I tried to pick up a little homeschooling with Colton and Eli, but it quickly fell apart. I began to think there was no way I was going to be able to pull this off...not the homeschooling, not having 4 kids, not parenting, not maintaining the house, not maintaining my sanity...nothing. By the end of the week, I began to throw a new plan together. I talked with Colton's taekwondo instructor Master Stevens. Except for the homeschool classes on Tuesday and Friday mornings, his building was mostly empty. I made arrangements with him for us to come in the following Monday (my first week flying solo) to do our school time. Then plan was to come 2 or 3 days a week. This would allow the kids to focus on their work – bigger space than at home (for separating kids), fewer distractions (like toys and video games), and even a big space to run and play (for working off frustrations and learning to play together). I also had the advantage of having Master Stevens there to be my bodyguard/backup. Since we were having issues with their recognizing my authority, it was helpful to have him there to say, “Yes, you have to listen to Mom.” He could also step in when things were rough so I could go fall apart privately and then return after I'd regained my composure. That was a luxury I would not have had at home by myself.
Just yesterday I found some notes from this first week of school on my own. Again, it was a very tough week. But the beauty of it is, that we are no longer there. We still have issues with attitudes and trying to blend everyone together. I'd say we had several pivotal moments in the first couple of months. Thanksgiving was awful. Christmas was tricky. But I truly think the worst is behind us. I still tense up at the first sign of resistance, and I have to remind myself to settle down because it isn't likely to escalate to the level of “bad” that it used to be.
The first day of school 6 months ago was so bad, we came back the next day and every day that week. Today, we are still going to the tkd school everyday for school. I pitch in around the school during the day and even work in the after-school program. Colton got his black belt last October just before we traveled, Eli rejoined in December, Milcho and Vanessa also started in December, and I gave in and signed up for classes in January (in addition to the Krav Maga class I was already in). Everyone seems to really be enjoying their tkd! I signed up both to have an activity in common with the kids but also for a way to release stress. So far, so good!
English is coming along nicely. I had heard that internationally adopted kids were often fluent in about 3 months. We didn't quite make that deadline, maybe because they are older kids and because they had each other to talk to in Bulgarian. I know we are making strides, though, when I hear them speak to each other occasionally in English or I hear Vanessa's dolls conversing in English.
I made another interesting observation recently. I saw someone holding his 18-month-old whom he had just adopted internationally. Everyone was gathered around ooo-ing and ahh-ing. At first, the little boy just looked blankly at everyone. Then it happened. He smiled. At that, everyone melted. “OH, he just got even cuter!!” It was then that I realized that our two had lost their “cuteness” before we ever left Bulgaria. I was tired, angry, sleep-deprived, confused, afraid, etc. NOTHING they said or did at that point was “cute”! See, this is one of the difficulties of adopting older children: their attitudes outweigh their cute factor. When we give birth or adopt newborns, they are cute for a really long time before there is a problem. We are able to bond with the cuteness...learn to love the cuteness. Then when problems come, there is a storehouse of cuteness that has built up that lessens the severity of the problem. When you adopt older children, you skip the cute phase. The problems are just ugly problems with out any cuteness to paint over them. I've wondered if step-parents can relate to this. They, too, take on a child they don't know and who has passed the cute phase. They CHOOSE to call this child their own and take care of them, even love them. The child, in turn, doesn't necessarily care and may actually try to refuse. Hmm. Maybe step-parents could help advise parents who adopt older kids.
It's funny. Writing this has been surprisingly difficult. Reading those old notes and thinking through where we've been has been hurtful, emotional, depressing, and encouraging all at the same time. Do I still recommend adoption? In a heartbeat. How about older kids? A sibling group? If you already have children? Yes, to all of the above – BUT, KNOW WHAT YOU ARE GETTING INTO. Research as much information as possible. Look for the bad (if you can find someone talking honestly about it) and expect a little worse. If it turns out better, celebrate! Ask yourself honestly if you think you could handle the worst. Make sure you stay on the same page with your spouse especially on discipline. My husband and I both have teaching backgrounds. We have experience dealing with other people's kids (i.e. no “cute time” with them). We've had to make classroom rules that everyone followed, and we have made (and followed through on) a consequence list for not following the classroom rules. We compared our philosophies long before we had children of our own. So we had a head-start in this area. Not perfect, but a head-start. We also did not walk into medical issues. Sure, they have cavities, and we just learned Milcho has some color-blindness. Big deal. Those are not family-disrupting issues like a child who will need life-long care or several years of major surgeries or who is facing early death but needed a family, too. I knew I wasn't strong enough to choose that path. (Yes, it's different if you give birth to that situation. You didn't choose it, but you adapt to it.) I simply wasn't strong enough to willingly choose it. But, there will be serious discipline issues, especially with our “middles” being so close in age to our bios (the “bookends” we call them). I often have to explain why consequences are different – for now, even though I might actually be angrier with the middles because of built up issues.
Like the saying goes: what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I'm still alive, so I guess I'm stronger now than I was 6 months ago.
And finally, the pictures......Ummm, next time. I don't have my camera with me to copy the pictures from, and I hate to put off posting this any longer. It's already another day late! I will try to get the pics on tonight or in the next couple of days.