Friday, April 11, 2014

Birth-Day Memories

We recently celebrated both kids' birthdays. Therefore, we now have a ten-year-old and an eleven-year-old in the family. Yikes! How can it be that we first met them when they were two and three?

K has had stronger reactions to the thought of attending middle school next year than she had to celebrating her birthday. The concept of being born to parents she's not living with is old news to her. If she had any difficulty with it this year, she has neither shown nor said anything about it.

M, however, had a rough time. Starting about two weeks before his birthday, he began spacing out--forgetting habits that he'd recently established. His memory is generally quite poor, but this was exceptional. He stopped reliably bringing home school papers and flushing the toilet. He even lost all his shoes. Then, on the birthday itself, he astonished me by listing out loud all the homework due that week, including correct due dates--the greatest memory feat I had ever seen him perform. Since then, he's been able to manage the memory tasks of daily life better than he ever has.  Maybe all the forgetting and remembering were just signs of brain growth.

But there was a painful consequence. Last week, as if the changes in M's brain were finally enabling him to consider his past, he began asking questions:

"How many parents have I had, again?"
"Why couldn't my birthparents take care of me?"
"How did I get here?"
And then, "It feels like I was born and then I woke up in preschool. I can't remember anything that happened in between."

Fortunately, I had recently attended a talk given by adoption expert Joyce Maguire Pavao on helping tweens and teens cope with their adoption history. I knew exactly what to do. I grabbed a piece of blank paper and a pen and said,

"Sweetie, let's draw a timeline of your life. What can you remember?" And we listed every event he thought was important, and we gave them all dates, and then I filled in what he could not remember about his early childhood.

His response?

Not what I expected. I thought he'd be happy to have his narrative clearly laid out in one place. Instead, he took another pen and drew tiny saws to sever the line after "Born" and again before "Adopted." He told me, "I wish I could cut out all this time before you had me. It's too sad."

It took great effort for me not to cry. Yes, my darling child, I thought. This is what you have been dealt. May God help you integrate it and find strength in it. 

He went to bed happy, though, and has been less visibly sad since. I am hoping that this knowledge--and its reinforcement through the lifebook work we're doing--is helping him feel more whole.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Yearbook Project That Shouldn't Be

In response to comments below and on Facebook, I have added to this entry. Thanks so much for your thoughts.


Remember these early posts about K bringing in family photos for a preschool art project?

Well, here it is again, sort of. The yearbook committee at our elementary school is requesting baby pictures of all the 5th-graders. Apparently they do this every year.

K doesn't have any.

My email conversation with the yearbook director resulted in an apology and a change in the request--now you can include toddler pictures--but I still consider this a stupid project. If you were a kid adopted from a terrible orphanage, or a kid bounced from foster home to foster home with nothing more than a trash bag of possessions, or a kid who had cancer as a toddler, would you really want your photos--if any existed--put between two hard covers for all your peers to see?


Sorry; I guess I was too rushed by the end of K's hockey practice and didn't think it through! I hate reading rants in which the ranter doesn't offer a solution, and I didn't offer one myself. Here's one.

How about making the assignment read like this: "Send us a photo that shows how much you've grown. Examples: A baby picture, a shot of you throwing your first softball, a scan of your first library card. Get creative! You've grown in so many ways."

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Academic Update, Part 2: At Home

To begin, let me remind you of the facts.

Both kids have been diagnosed as having ADD/ADHD by Dr. Ned Hallowell. (I enrolled the kids in a trial of a video game designed to train the ADD brain, and Dr. Hallowell did the intake. I'll post more on this later.) The causes could be anything--prenatal exposure to something, inherited brain chemistry, trauma altering the brain structure, adoption affecting emotions. Regardless, we're trying to help the kids learn to cope with the result. We'll use medication if we have to, but we'd prefer to go without.
     I consider ADD/ADHD a way some people's brains work that the civilized world isn't built for. I don't consider the diagnosis to be the kiss of death, just a name for the type of brain some people have. I don't expect the world to change overnight to accommodate people with ADD/ADHD--even though it would be a better place if it did. (Movement breaks? Really good organization tools? YEAH!) Therefore, I want my kids to accommodate the world rather than the world to accommodate my kids. 

Why am I writing as "I" rather than as "we"? Because Peter leaves the house at 6:30AM, gets home anywhere between 6:30 and 11:30PM, and works one weekend a month. In other words, I am largely going it alone when it comes to the home component of the kids' education. So, here's how I help them function in a system built more for brains like mine than for brains like theirs.

1. To help the kids gauge the sweep of time, we use two Time Timers.  These visual aids give a great sense of elapsed time. I have put one in the hall by the kids' bedrooms and one in the kitchen.

2. I set up a homework station a long time ago. It's a desk with a hutch and a drawer which I keep stocked with school supplies. All school books go on the shelves of the hutch so they don't get lost in the kids' rooms. (We learned that lesson the hard way.) One kid can work at this desk, the other nearby at the kitchen table or the dining room. Neither is allowed to work in his or room unless an adult is on the same floor: there are too many distractions. The only exception is if K really needs music to concentrate. In that case, I check on her about every 5 minutes.

3. We stick to a homework routine. When a kid gets home, he or she can have a little play time (NOT screen time), then a snack. Homework starts about 20 minutes after arrival, unless the kid wants to start sooner.

4. We sort through the week's assignments. Anything that isn't due tomorrow gets filed in a multi-pocket clear file, one pocket for each day of the week. These pocket files stay in the kids' backpacks so they'll have them at their after-school program.

5. I allow the kids to use their bodies any way they like while working. For example, they can stand up, bounce on a Swiss ball, march up and down stairs, chew gum. Anything as long as it doesn't distract other people.

6. We take breaks between assignments or every 10-15 minutes, whichever feels right. M doesn't like taking breaks, so we skip them as long as he's able to focus. Again, these breaks are NOT screen time.

7. At the end of homework, I coach whoever needs it in putting assignments away for handing in. And in putting away school supplies.

8. I keep the after-school teachers updated on any changes to our routine, and they do the same.

9. Peter and I both do NOT save a kid if he or she neglects to do work. We want them to face their teachers' consequences. Also, we don't want homework to be a battleground at home: we'd rather let the teachers fight that one. (But check back with us during college applications....)

K has done extremely well with homework this year and now manages it almost entirely on her own. M still needs a great deal of support.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Circumcision FAQ Revisited

I've noticed that a few people per day are accessing my Circumcision FAQ page, so I'm providing an updated version for those seeking information on this very difficult issue for Jewish adoptive families. Please bear in mind that the choice we made worked for us. A different choice may work better for you. Do Google "brit shalom" and "inactivist" for perfectly valid alternatives and opinions that differ from mine.

If you do not believe in circumcision, I support your right to believe what you wish. I do not, however, support your right to do the following, which I am sad to say others have done:

-Post inflammatory responses to this post other places I write.
-Threaten me or family privately.
-Warn clergy that Peter and I adopt and mutilate boys.
-Ask adoption agencies to take our children away.

Here goes.

Q: Does circumcision = conversion to Judaism? In other words, isn't this forcible conversion?
A: No. M will make his final choice in a few years by choosing whether to have his bar mitzvah.

Q: How long did you take to decide?
A: Two and a half years. We deliberated from the time we learned M might become our son until the actual day of the surgery.

Q: Why did you choose to do it?
A: Not because of Jewish law. Rather, to help our adopted son feel he belongs in our family.

Circumcising males is mandated by Jewish law; therefore, every one of M's male (adopted) relatives is circumcised. Our research indicated overwhelmingly that adopted boys feel more fully accepted into their families if they look like their dads. We decided to do it when M was young so he could grow up belonging. Our research also indicated that boys and men saddled with the choice later in life often find it agonizing to make, and we wanted to spare him that. We won't know for years, of course, whether that was a good idea.

Q: At what age did you do it and why?
A: M was 4 years old. We adopted him at 2. We waited those two years to allow him to attach to us, learn English, and develop healthy body boundaries. Also, the surgery and healing at age 4 are quick, simple, and relatively painless.

Q: Who performed the surgery?
A: We did not use a mohel (ritual circumciser). Instead, we used a pediatric surgeon with lots of experience in beyond-infancy circumcisions. We did it at a local hospital known for its top-notch pediatric surgical unit.

Q: What was the procedure?
A: M received general anesthesia; that is, he was fully asleep. Peter and our rabbi went with him into the OR. He was under for about an hour: 20 minutes to stabilize his sleep state, 20 minutes for the surgery, and 20 minutes coming out. The surgery itself was cleaner and more exacting than a mohel could have managed.

Q: How was the recovery?
A: M was numb and sleepy for about 6h afterwards; then he experienced discomfort. Our surgeon prescribed Tylenol with codeine, but it hopped up M so much that we were afraid he'd hurt himself, so we switched to regular Tylenol for maybe two days. Because of a dosing error on my part, M had about 10 minutes of breakthrough pain, but he was in a nice, warm bath at the time and he forgot about it later. I had more difficulty recovering than he did.

Q: What was the after-care?
A: Petroleum jelly in his shorts for about a week. No bandages, ice, etc. And nobody had to handle his private parts. The stitches dissolved on their own and therefore did not need to be removed.

Q: How does M feel about it now?
A: He knows he used to look different than he does now; he's happy he now looks like his Papa; he thought the day of the surgery was fun; he's happy to see the surgeon whenever we run into him. We are careful to tell M that his foreskin wasn't wrong or bad and that people who keep their foreskins are perfectly fine.

Q: Do I recommend that other families circumcise their adopted sons?
A: I have no right to recommend that other families do this, or anything else, that we do.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Academic Update, Part 1: At School

It's been a while since I've reported what's going on with K and M academically, so I'll try to do it now. As usual, I'm writing at rinkside with freezing hands. Today, a little autistic boy is whooping it up about three feet away from me, providing even more distraction. I'll do my best.

K and M are both in what is considered one of the country's best school systems. Both kids have long received reading and math tutoring. The special education staff initiated IEP evaluations for both kids. Peter and I have so far demanded no services because the school has offered them before we could ask. Yes, our kids are very fortunate.

K is in fifth grade, her last year before middle school. Fifth grade is treated as a proving ground for middle school, so students have different teachers for each subject and lots of homework. They have to be able to keep track of multiple assignments and due dates, short- and longterm projects. Parents are discouraged from assisting.

K is a superb classroom citizen, and she loves school, but her performance is inconsistent and her standardized test scores place her at low-average for just about everything, somewhat below grade level. Her attention drifts. We had an IEP (Individual Education Plan) meeting about her last spring; she'll be re-evaluated this spring. The team decided that she has an attention deficit, which qualifies as a health disability. They recommended small-group instruction in reading and math, individual administration of standardized tests (so she can read the questions aloud), and a few physical classroom accommodations to help her pay attention. While K does not have a formal IEP for daily instruction--her needs are not considered exceptional at our school--her standardized test accommodation is legally considered a 504 (rough translation: "Her disability prevents her from the fair access required by the state for state tests, so modifications must be made").

M is in fourth grade, which is a proving ground for fifth grade. Kids have to shift between two classrooms and learn to use an agenda book. There are consequences for missed homework. Parents are discouraged from assisting.

M has always delighted his teachers--he's helpful, kind, and imaginative. He dislikes school because "it's boring," which means, "I can't pay attention that long." His performance is inconsistent; his standardized test scores place him below average for everything except listening comprehension, which is off-the-charts high. He forgets things as quickly as they are taught. We had an IEP (Individual Education Plan) meeting about him in December; he'll be re-evaluated next winter. The team decided that he has an attention deficit, which qualifies as a health disability. They recommended individual and small-group instruction in reading, writing, and math, individual administration of standardized tests (so he can read the questions aloud), and a few physical classroom accommodations to help him pay attention, e.g. movement breaks and multisensory instruction. He has a formal IEP for both daily instruction and standardized test accommodation.

M has been unsuccessful using agenda books--both the ones from school and the better ones I've given him. His teacher therefore gives him a single-page weekly homework chart, but it's useless when he forgets to bring his work home, which he does at least once a week. (Now that I think of it, I ought to have him make copies of his chart and worksheets when they do get home). His teacher and I are both trying to train him in this most important task.

I'll describe what we do at home in Part 2.

Lifebooks in a Nutshell

A lifebook is, simply, the physical form of the narrative of an adopted person's life. Although it is called a lifebook, it does not need to be in book form. A book is simply an easy way to think about it.

What's hard to get straight about lifebooks is that they are for the benefit of the child, not the parent. Therefore, in my opinion, a lifebook should be made by the child with the assistance of a loving adult (or adults, or older children) who know the child's narrative. By working with the child, and by leaving the lifebook in the care of the child, the adult transfers custody of the narrative to the child.

If you go by my definition, a lifebook is not:
-a photo album.
-made for the child by the parent.
-kept out of the child's reach or room.
-hardbound or static.

By my definition, a lifebook may be:
-made up of any photos and documents that seem relevant. (Use copies if the originals must be kept safe.)
-a scrapbook with removable pages.
-a file folder, or a group of file folders, or a whole file cabinet.
-perused at will by the child.
-altered at will by the child.
-evolving; never finished.

Our kids' lifebooks are currently boxes of curated paper and digital files of curated photos. Duplicates of some of these documents are in the kids' rooms--hung on the walls, stuffed in file cabinets, put in picture frames, drawn on, slept on, etc. Now that K and M are able to sustain attention on long projects, we feel it's time to sift through everything and help them arrange whatever they want to arrange so that their story makes sense to them.

I am the only person in the family capable of managing paper. Guess I've got to start going through those boxes.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Guest Post on Weightlifting and Parenting

In case you're interested, I had the honor of guest posting on Dr. Carla Naumberg's Mindful Parenting blog on The date was January 10th. Here is the link to my essay.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Adoption vs Depression vs Age 9

Here's something I have been meaning to post, in case you'd find it helpful.

Our pediatrician and our regular child psychologist told us last summer that M seemed not quite himself. Our playful, outgoing little guy presented as shy, subdued, even reticent. They both referred us to one of the local adoption psychology experts.

Peter and I had noticed for about two years that M sometimes goes through periods of what looks like quiet sadness. These periods never last for more than a handful of days, and never manifest in disruptive or otherwise harmful behavior. But being a depressive myself, I watch him carefully during those times and will privately ask him, "How's your mood today?" or even, "I woke up a little sad today. How about you?"  We felt relieved when we finally got a referral to "Dr. Anna," who, like our pediatrician, sees a large population of Russian adoptees here in New England. (I can give you her contact information privately. Let me know if you need it.)

We first met with Dr. Anna on our own, without M. We discussed his history as far as we know it, as well has his school performance and behavior.  Dr. Anna seemed optimistic about his mental health because of the beautiful care he had before we adopted him and because of the effort we made--that we always make--to be honest with him about his history. She loved that we learned enough Russian to understand him, loved that we'd studied enough about adoption to deal with his grief when he joined our family. She already doubted that his recent behavior change had much to do with being adopted. As she put it, "My task will be to figure out whether what he's going through is related to adoption, depression, or simply being a nine-year-old boy."

I brought M to her three times over the next six weeks. M, accustomed to seeing a "feelings doctor" once in a while, thought nothing of seeing a new one for a few visits. In fact, he looked forward to meeting her when I explained that Dr. Anna came from Russia and knew lots of kids adopted from Russia.

I'd give you more detail about the sessions, but I was outside the room. M was not shy with Dr. Anna, so they did not need me to help break the ice. "But he was very polite," she told me after the first session. "I think he'll need to get to know me before he'll tell me what's on his mind."

At the end of three sessions of talk, play, and drawing, Dr. Anna had her diagnosis: M is "one of the healthiest kids I have ever seen. Other kids in my practice aspire to the level of mental health that he has. You guys deserve a pat on the back."


She went on, "But M-- is nine. And he's a very deep thinker. What you are seeing might be the sharp edges of questions poking at him from the inside...About his origins, where he fits in, whether he's normal." The usual preadolescent stuff with the extra layer that adoption brings. She recommended we make a lifebook with him. "He seems a little hazy on his life story, so having greater command of the facts might give him the confidence he needs to find answers to some of those questions." Of course, she told us to call her if M's behavior began to worry us again.

Peter and I are thrilled that Dr. Anna is pleased with M's health.

What is a lifebook? That will be my next entry.