Communicating

Written by Stephanie. Danelle wasn’t the first person to say something about it–I honestly can’t remember who was. But “you and Ron need to get better at communicating” has been a fairly consistent observation (or criticism, ahem) over the past two decades, uttered by friends and family alike.

Fortunately, Danelle is both keenly observant and interested in psychology and the dynamics of relationships, so she’s been able to help us with specific ideas and discussions. I want to say that this really picked up while we were separated by those 1700ish miles. Whether it was the distance (easier to observe from the outside) or the medium of communication (easier to get your entire idea across when you’re recording a video), the conversations around communication got deep and real during that period. I learned a lot.

Such as: what’s the single most important thing in communicating?

Answer: listening. We usually think that the problem is that we’re not being clear in what we’re saying or we’re going about it the wrong way, and that’s true to an extent. But the bigger obstacle is not paying attention to how the message is being received.

And really, that’s what matters. What’s landing? What is the other person hearing?

To truly hear the other person, I’m working on not interrupting and on not focusing on what I’m going to say back. Even if we have a bit of an awkward pause while I figure out my response, I want to respect what they have to say.

I also try to listen for what’s not being said and then voice it if I can. Asking open-ended questions is a good technique for this. Does that make sense? (See what I did there?)

More than anything, I want Danelle to know how much we value her input in our lives and in raising the kids. That’s somehow hard–there aren’t many manuals for a complex blended family with emphasis on the complex. Sometimes, I need to remember to extend the invitation. And other times, I need to make sure I am ready to actually listen.

When Change Feels Like God Forgot You

Written by Danelle. In the words of the great Langston Hughes, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” I’ve always been a spiritual person. However, I thought God forgot about me at times. Being able to go see the twins every week or so was the thing I always thought of when I was asked, “Think of one thing you can thank God for.”

When that changed and they moved, I thought, “Well, the other shoe has dropped—I am forgotten again.” That was not at all the case, but depression makes the world much bleaker than it really is. That being said, I did feel like I’d lost my dreams of what the future might look like. I had to reevaluate what this adoption was and would be.

It felt like my adoption was starting all over again. We tried Skype but getting children to sit and talk on a schedule just did not work at all. I felt like I was losing my connection with Dawn, with the twins, and with Steph & Ron. It was not a good time for me. However, we found an app that worked, and I made sure to make it down for their birthdays every year.

Then the pandemic happened, and I thought, “If I’m working from home anyway, why not work from where they live?” After some aggressive life coaching, a bit of luck, and a blessing or two, I see the kids once a week or so, once again.

And even does Dani’s hair!

And also resisting change

Written by Stephanie

Dawn hates change. This has been a feature of her personality from the time she was little. Like on her 6th birthday, when she had a complete meltdown beecause we got her a bunkbed. It was all well and good–we had achieved buy-in, you might say–until we pulled her and Dani’s beds out of the room.

“Temper tantrum” hardly begins to describe it. And it lasted for hours.

This is a “before” picture.

We have unintentionally kicked her resistance to change up a notch, no doubt, by moving so much. By that 6th birthday, Dawn had lived at 4 different addresses. She was really unhappy about the move to the bungalow in Skokie (when she was 3) and kept a picture of the old house–a whopping 4 miles away–on her bedroom door. I’d try to lessen her attachment by reminding her of the ants in the walls, the mice in the basement, and the fact that her room was too small to close the door (her bed was in the way). But none of that ever worked.

I admit it did have a great backyard.

The only thing that has helped Dawn let go of that earlier loss was–you guessed it–a worse one. Turns out that 1200 miles between houses is a much worse experience. And making that leap in the middle of 4th grade? Unforgivable.

Ron and I have joked that Dawn will never move again. Not that she’ll live with us forever–no, she’ll send us to a retirement community and keep the house. She doesn’t agree. She has dreams of owning Grandma & Grandpa’s house (with its swimming pool) or of buying a big swath of land. But mostly, she’s planning to go back to Skokie.

And maybe, just maybe, she’ll end up in the same red-brick bungalow that she used to hate.

Adapting to change

Written by Stephanie Lundeen

I want to kick off this new year by thanking you, our readers. I’ve heard from several of you in the past few weeks, and your encouragement and appreciation rekindled the flame that had nearly burned out. Something about 2021 was deeply exhausting, taking its toll in unexpected ways. Enter that above-mentioned encouragement, and Danelle and I are pledging to post regularly (the goal is to post weekly) throughout 2022.

The Tolt river

As we flipped the calendar to 2022, I reflected on how little has changed in our lives this year–other than the surprise snowstorms that brought a wonderful hush to the landscape and our lives between Christmas and New Year’s. But the rhythms of work and school and basketball practices go on as before.

Such was not the case a mere four years ago, when we turned our lives on end by moving out to the Seattle area after fifteen years in Chicagoland. Back then, we pulled ourselves up by the roots, stretching and straining several relationships in the process. And, perhaps inevitably, some of them broke.

As the kids adjusted to a new school and I searched for work, we ached for the friends and family who could no longer join us over the holidays or simply drop by for an evening.

Making bracelets during the storms last week

The relationship that we were most keen to maintain was with Danelle. We had established a weekly cadence of seeing her: she would head up after work on Wednesdays (or was it Thursdays?) and–rather than make the two-hour trip back home–would usually stay overnight and take the train to work the following day. We’d get together on weekends too, for games or celebrations. She had worked hard to have a good relationship with each of the kids–including Dawn. I agonized over jeopardizing that closeness. What would it mean for the kids, especially the twins?

And what would it mean for Danelle? She was going through a lot at the time, and I felt so awful that we couldn’t be a support to her. We convinced her to come visit over the kids’ spring break, and the trip went by way too fast. We managed to go back to Chicago a few months later, in August, and once again the trip went by too fast.

I also took the twins to Wakandacon!

During that first year apart, we tried to set up a regular video call with the kids, but it never quite worked out. Either something would come up for one of us, the internet wouldn’t work, or the kids simply wouldn’t cooperate. Which is maybe simply what comes of expecting kids to act like grown-ups.

Case in point?

Fortunately, my sister introduced me to Marco Polo, an app that let the kids and Danelle send video messages to each other. The kids would be silly and overdo it with emojis and filters, but at least they were communicating! I love, too, that it gives them a space together, without me having to mediate. And it continues to give Danelle’s mom a chance to read books to her grandchildren!

For the next three years, we got together in person as much as we could–which usually involved Danelle coming out to visit–and we used Marco Polo and phone calls. It never quite took the place of having Danelle over once or twice a week, but it was definitely the next best thing.

Because who could resist those smiles?

Mama’s baby, Daddy’s maybe

Mama’s baby, Daddy’s maybe — I grew up hearing this before I really knew where babies came from. It took me a long time to even try to write this post. I don’t really want to explore the circumstances of my pregnancy. It is one of the aspects of my adoption I still have some shame about. It is why I have yet to tell my father about his only biological grandchildren. I thought instead I could try to explain my feelings with a poem.

I’m pregnant

who do I tell, Who will help my fears be quelled

I’m pregnant

Who will be happy for me, There are no parties or joyful times to see

I’m pregnant

Its twins can you believe, I grip invisible hands as I grieve

I’m pregnant

Can I really do this, the mental answer of ‘No’ is crisp

I’m Pregnant

I guess I should tell someone, or all I’ll know is shame in the long run

I’m pregnant

I love them but I’m not ready, I think I will choose adoption, but my choice is unsteady

I’m pregnant

We both know this can’t be out in the open, however you act like I am broken

I’m pregnant

Are you going to help me out, your daughter calls me during labor, and I want to shout

I’m pregnant

Making decisions on my own, sitting in the hospital all alone

I was pregnant

I sit with infants much to small, I feel like I failed them as I bawl

I was pregnant

I send him photos to keep, I get no response, so I spare him a last weep

I was pregnant

It’s a wound, a pain I constantly feel, I have a wonderful adoption, but I still need grace and time to heal

“We don’t have birthfathers.”

By Stephanie. Yes, it’s been a while. Like, a long while. Partially, I’ve been so ridiculously busy that even showering has been a rare treat (which I’m only admitting because our relationship is entirely virtual). Also, wading into another weighty topic has required more strength than I’ve been able to muster: as I kept turning this topic over in my mind, I couldn’t ever seem to land on the right words. But the right words might never come, and so I am finally taking the plunge:

When she was about three years old, Dani began teaching herself the fine art of stalling at bedtime. One night, she fired off at least a half-dozen questions which I did my best to parry. I had finally taken two steps out the door when she piped up with: “What about, who is my birth dad?”

Fortunately, Dawn had my back. She may have even said, “I can tell her, Mom”—I don’t remember. Because, instead, what she did say to her baby sister was:

“We don’t have birthfathers.”

Dawn and Dani, 2014

Oops.

We had a picture of Dawn’s birthmother and half-sister right by her bed, and Danelle was making regular appearances in the twins’ lives. Danelle had good reasons why she didn’t share much about the twins’ birthfather, and Dawn’s birthfather had warrants out for his arrest. I hadn’t meant to make the kids think these men didn’t exist—I just didn’t have much to go on, less to say that was positive, and even less hope that they’d be forming relationships with the kids, so I didn’t mention them.

At all, apparently. And naturally, a kid will conclude…

My kids’ experiences are not that unusual. Birthfathers are quite often completely out of the picture, as issues around adoption complicate already-messy relationships. There is scant education or information around birthfathering–Ron was recently asked to be on a panel about the subject, but the webinar was canceled due to a lack of participants. I don’t have any expertise in this area, but I can imagine how cultural hurdles stack on top of legal ones (we had to ask the court to terminate paternal rights, as neither birthfather signed the papers). We can send photos and letters to Dawn’s birthmom, but we have no way to locate her birthfather, much less ask if he’d like to be involved in her life.

(And it’s quite the involved life.)

The absence of the twins’ birthfather points to a real absence of Black men in Darnell’s life. I feel this keenly, and I have made a few gestures toward connecting him more to the men in Danelle’s family, but they are hundreds of miles away, and nothing has really worked out yet. Hopefully, we will figure out how to make those connections happen when they need to, as well as find some role models closer to home.

But the life in which Darnell gets to shoot hoops or throw a ball with boys and men who share his DNA is not the life he has now, and that possible childhood is forever gone. I know he and his sisters feel this loss sometimes—maybe even most of the time—and I know they have imagined wonderful, wholehearted lives with kind and rich and beautiful and loving relatives. And I further know that they won’t share these fantasies with me because they don’t want to hurt my feelings (I’ve noticed that adopted kids watch out for their parents’ feelings a lot).

So, sadly, I’m not privvy to any details of the fantasies the kids have about the lives they might have lived, with one exception: for a while, Darnell convinced his second-grade class that he was actually related to Michael Jackson.

(You’d believe him too.)

Not Your Average Mother’s Day Poems

Written by Danelle Henden. Depression has been something I’ve struggled with since I was 5 years old. I don’t truly know if it was a chemical imbalance or the emotional and sexual trauma that I experienced from that age to my teen years. It can be hard to sit and write about things so hard to process, you deal with them still almost 30 years later. I used poetry as an outlet, so in honor of that, I have a few poems now that may hint at the topic. I hope they are as well received as my blog post.

May be an image of Shanyce Henley

Lost in Sadness
Where is happiness I should like to go there to feel alive
However, Did I miss a turn and go down depression drive
Where are the cheerful trees, these are all full of Despair
Why are these streets so despondent, is there something in the air
Why can’t I find joy? Is it hiding somewhere?
I’ve searched for so long and sent up so many prayers
Is there a quota I didn’t fill or a requirement unmet
Is it like credit and I just have a negative Joyfulness debt
How long do I have to spend jailed in melancholy
Before I’m release and free to enjoys smile and be jolly
Why is it free for some and expensive for others
Is not consistent not even with Sister’s and Brothers
I’d like to be happy consistently so
I’d like the direction, can you tell me, do you know?


May be an image of Shanyce Henley

Mother

Am I a mother can that be so
I gave birth but I also watched you go
Am I a mother can I call me one
I felt you kick but still my dependents are none
Am I a mother can it be true
I show you love but I’ve never kissed wound
Am I a mother what does it mean
I see you but will you still care when you’re a teen
Am I a mother even on mother’s day
I worry like one but do you know of my display
I am a mother that’s what I believe
I care as such, love as much, and will never leave
I am a mother untraditionally so
That doesn’t make me less than just different, you know.
I am a mother, my kids have two
They are doubly loved because That’s what mothers do.

That uncomfortable feeling has a name

In some ways, the year 2020 has been a long tutorial in grief, and that has helped me process so much of what I experienced during the adoption process. I now realize that, weird as it sounds, I grieved the loss of being pregnant. When Dawn was a baby, a friend joked that I’d gotten away with something by skipping the pregnancy, but that wasn’t how I felt at all. I had imagined for years, in a wistful and romantic way that really is pretty funny, about the wonder of bringing a new life into the world. Would I be sick every morning? Would I be so round that seatbelts wouldn’t fit? Would I have a “happy pregnancy” without complications? I will never know.

Dawn, age 10 months

And that goes for the biological kids that we might have had. Would they have looked more like me or like Ron? Would they have inherited any of our talents? Would they have had birth defects or disabilities? Would we have been able to raise them more easily, or would we have stifled them with expectations? What would it have been like to be a family that did all look like each other—that didn’t have to explain—that enjoyed privileges that so many families don’t even realize they have? Again, I will never know, and these things too I grieved.

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Then again, who would we have been, had we not been so shaped by this process and by our actual (and amazing—just slipping that in here) family? Ron mused the other day that he might even be back on the square of wondering what the Black Lives Matter fuss was about. Perhaps a version of himself in an alternate universe is sipping cognac with other law partners (because that’s what they do, right?) and having a purely theoretical discussion about the ontological implications of BLM rhetoric before leaving the office for his biological daughter’s ballet recital. (Insert eye roll.) He likes to say that, if there were some metaphysical “best possible lives” contest, he won it—his actual current life is the best one he can imagine.

I don’t know if he didn’t experience grief or if he just moved through the stages to acceptance and meaning faster than I did. Heck, I didn’t even know meaning was a stage until earlier this year (see David Kessler’s work at http://www.grief.com). Back when we were in the messy and drawn-out adoption process, I didn’t recognize my own grief, didn’t know how to explain what I was feeling, didn’t even know there was a process. Thankfully, I do now.

Depression

Written by Danelle Henden. Depression is like being in the middle of the ocean. You try your hardest to swim out of it, but it never feels like you have made it anywhere.

I’ve dealt with depression since I was a child. It has a revolving door entry into my life. When I became pregnant, I was already dealing with one of the lowest moments of my life. I had been on academic probation because I wasn’t doing well, but I didn’t change my major. I met the twins’ father during this low point, and at that point, I just wanted a win. I wanted to feel loved, and I wanted to feel like I could succeed at something. However, obviously this was not the best situation for me, and it left me pregnant, lonely, and more depressed.

From the fourth grade on, I had wanted twins. I even wrote out their names – and there I was, pregnant with twins. Except I had no money, no job, no degree, no house, no care, and no positive outlooks on life at that time.

I was not prepared to speak light into these kids’ life when all my outlooks were covered in darkness and negativity.

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Most hard decisions come with a lot of mixed emotions, and deciding to place is no different. I felt trepidation, anxiety, grief, love, and an all-encompassing sadness. However, I decided what I had at that moment vs. what I felt my children deserved did not match.

Placing is one of the most difficult experiences to go through. I sobbed – absolutely sobbed – when I was face to face with two separate release forms to sign away my rights.

However, with each downward spiral, you get an upswing after. My upswing was finding a family that wanted me included in their family. It was seeing the smiles on the twins’ faces when I showed up. It is looking in their little faces and knowing I made the right decision.

I can finally smile without sadness about my situation.

Almost despairing

She’s a natural. No, really.

For a couple years, our Saturday mornings were all about hip hop dance. Ron and I would take turns (depending on whatever else was going on) taking the kids to classes at Supreme Dance Studio, where I looked forward to seeing my kids enjoy a serious workout while gaining some great skills and a bit of finesse. I also looked forward to chatting with other grown-ups, especially another mom of a transracial adoptee. This mom had gone with an international adoption, she confided, because she needed more certainty in the process: there were set forms and fees, a certain amount of time before getting approval and filling out more forms, etc. She needed to know, in short, how long she’d be waiting.

I could understand. The uncertainty of domestic adoption is not for everyone. In fact, I’m kind of surprised any of us make it through the process unscarred. From the time that we completed our trainings, evaluations, forms, payments, etc., until we held Dawn in our arms was actually only four or five months. It felt like decades.

Initially, it was an emotional rollercoaster of epic proportions. To say that I cried every day is maybe an exaggeration, but only a slight one. Before our portfolio was shown to a prospective birthparent, we were told some basic facts about the situation and asked whether we wanted to be considered. We said yes every time – only to be told no, they had gone with someone else or decided to leave the program altogether.

As any new parent knows, I was an idiot. I should’ve been out living it up, packing in late-night concerts and shows, exploring the jazz clubs and all-night diners, in every corner of the city. Instead, after a dizzying rush to finish and defend my dissertation, I found myself in a kind of existential freefall. I applied for jobs but didn’t get interviews. I couldn’t even get volunteer organizations to call me back. I had too much time on my hands and no direction, which is a very weird place to be weeks before graduating with a doctorate. And as a result, all I could think about was the baby we couldn’t plan for.

It became harder and harder to get out of bed, to make a shopping list, to pay bills. Uncertainty and vagueness swallowed up my days, and crying was almost the only thing that helped. Ron’s unfailing optimism didn’t comprehend what I was experiencing, but he was patient and pulled us through to that amazing moment when our adoption counselor said, “She wants to meet you.”

A six-hour drive for a maybe? You bet!

2010

Ron very much wanted more kids and so, shortly after Dawn’s second birthday, we opened our search again. This was in 2010, and the adoption landscape had begun its radical transformation. There weren’t many birthparents choosing adoption, at least not through our agency. Our new counselor encouraged us to put up an online portfolio, but we were uncomfortable with the whole idea. This time, it was Ron who started to feel the despair. While my friends sent me encouraging articles about raising an only child, Ron became somewhat despondent, unwilling to concede his dream of a big, boisterous family but also feeling increasingly unable to make it happen. This sense worsened when, after meeting with a birthmom whose expected mixed-race baby seemed a perfect sister for our Dawn, she decided against us.

And then, on the Winter Solstice of 2010, a single phone call changed everything.