Saturday, June 27, 2009

My Little Girl Is Growing Up

Our little girl is growing up. Shortly after her adoption was finalized, we removed the crib in our room, and the crib in the room she shares with Michela. She never slept in those anyway. We just needed to have them to show to the social workers when they came for home visits. Instead, she slept with us. Right between Tim and me. We found on Freecycle some happy young couples that were happy to take the cribs away for us.

For Maya, we bought a tiny pink sleigh bed at the Salvation Army, using our own mattress of course, and gluing brightly colored wooded letters spelling MAYA on the headboard. She has been very excited about her Big Girl Bed since the day we moved it in. To anyone who came into the house, she would ask, “Do you want to see my big girl bed?” Or she would ask Tim or myself, “That’s my Big Girl Bed? Not anyone else’s?” We assured her it was. And we made it very comfortable by putting in the Elmo doll that she has had since she was born, and the Madam Alexander baby doll that her Aunt Marissa bought her, and the American Girl baby doll that I bought her, along with the teddy bear that her Ima bought her from Ten Thousand Villages, and the monkey given to her by her brother Dylan, and the blanket that was sent to her from her Nanny, Mima, and Mommy Nikki. She still is not sure she likes sleeping there. If we move her there after falling asleep in our bed, she will usually stay there all night now. But it takes more effort to have her start the night in her bed. We usually have to sit in the rocker and sing or lay down next to her for a time.

We have also thrown out all pacifiers in the house recently. I thought maybe her front teeth were sticking out a bit due to the “Nook” -- which is what we call them after the brand named “Nuk.” I told her she was too big for a Nuk, now that she was a big girl and slept in her Big Girl Bed. “Then I’ll sleep in your bed,” she reasoned. No need to be so hasty. “But Mommy’s afraid your teeth are crooked,” I told her. She looked in the mirror and agreed they might be. When I asked her whether she thought she could throw her pacifier in the garbage in the bathroom, she said she could. And ran off to do it. I heard the lid to the can close as she came out. It wasn’t until going to bed later that night when she couldn’t sleep and was truly suffering that I began to think I might have to give in. I told her I thought she could do it. I held her and tickled her feet and her back, like she likes. She cried for her Nuk and, like an addict, jumped out of bed and began rummaging through the bathroom garbage pail. I got there just in time to grab it from her hand and wash it with soap and water before she put it in her mouth. And then, after having it for awhile, she said, “I can’t have this. My teeth are crooked.” And she went and put it in the bedroom garbage pail.

There have been two other funny instances of Maya struggling with giving up her Nuk addiction. My friend Shanikqua tells me that, at her house, after Maya had given up Nuks, she found one in Shanikqua’s bedroom. Quietly, she placed it in her mouth and placed her hand over her mouth so as to cover up the Nuk. She walked around the apartment with her hand over her mouth, believing that she was getting away with sucking on the illegal contraband. That is, she thought so until Shanikqua asked her what was behind her hand in her mouth. She tried to respond, “Nothing” through her hand. Shanikqua says she fell out laughing.

The other instance of Maya facing her addition head on occurred today. From across the room, she turned towards the couch and her eye caught upon something. I heard her squeal “OOOOHH!” And then saw her dive under the couch. Like a fisherman who had reached into a hollowed log and pulled out a catfish, she raised her prize in the air and smiled with a grin that was somewhere between delusional and playful. “A Nuk!” she laughed in a jittery voice. “What ya gonna do with it?” I asked. “Maybe you should go downstairs and ask Daddy what you should do with it.” She fled from the room.

Tim reports that she came downstairs and showed him the Nuk and said, “Maybe I should put it in my Big Girl Bed.” Tim suggested, “Or you could throw it out.” Maya offered, “Or put it in your pocket for when I need it.” They looked at one another for a time that seemed interminable until Maya, in a voice more mature for her age, suggested, “I have crooked teeth. Maybe I should throw it out.” And she hopped up the steps to the kitchen. Tim didn’t know what happened to the Nuk after that, but Livie, our foster child for the week, told me Maya was very brave and threw out her Nuk.

It was so sad to see her come across an object that brought her such simple pure joy and to see that joy in her face again, only to be crestfallen to realize that she doesn’t do Nuks anymore. It was sad to see her then be brave and throw away the one thing that never failed her in her short life. This is growing up way too fast. I just wonder if there is a way to slow things down and ease the pain. My poor baby girl.

And poor me. Growing up so fast. Pretty soon she'll want to drive the car. . . .

Sunday, June 14, 2009

What If She Wants To Go Live With Her Mother?

I never refer to Maya's mother as her birthmother or biological mother or first mother. In my eyes, Nikki is Maya's mother. Not exactly in the same way that I am Maya's mother. But her mother nonetheless. "Maya's other mother," I sometimes say. I worry that people will think I don't think of myself as Maya's mother. Which is far from true. I KNOW I am Maya's mother. And Maya knows that. And Nikki knows that. But I can't refer to Nikki as a "birthmother" because I don't refer to myself as an "adoptive mother." And I can't refer to her as a "first mother" because I don't refer to myself as Maya's second or third mother. (Maya had a foster mother before she came to me. One who loved Maya so dearly that she was able to move easily to our home and love us completely because she had known so much love in her life.) I know that this is unusual even in open adoptions. But I have nothing but great respect and awe for Maya's other mother. And I can't take away from her the title and honor of being Maya's mother. She has been through enough hurt in her life. I don't feel right stripping her of one of her greatest accomplishments. So, often, I will tell Maya to run and give her mother a big hug and a kiss when we arrive at her home. Or I ask Maya if she wants to talk to her Mommy on the phone. Maya always knows who I am talking about. She is not confused. I will sometimes refer to Nikki as "Mommy Nikki" or "Mama Nikki." Even though I don't refer to myself as "Mommy Michelle." Being one of two mothers does sometimes require clarification.

Nikki is very good about recognizing me as Maya's mother. When I once went to a family birthday party and an in-law introduced me to a distant relative as Maya's step mother, I told Nikki about it after the party. She was adamant that I should have put the woman straight right there and then and told her I am not a step mother, that I am Maya's mother. She also tells Maya that she has to go ask her mother if she wants to eat a treat. Nikki and I also laugh about when we are out in public and people see us together and try to figure out the relationships. We are hesitant to say we are both Maya's mother because we don't want to lead people to believe that we are a lesbian couple. Usually, we let them assume what they want to. Once, when we were at my green grocer, the checker (who knew me) asked, in reference to Maya, "She's your daughter, right?" I nodded proudly. Maya was in Nikki's arms. I set more fruit and vegetables on the counter. The checker rang them up and bagged them. Then she looked at Nikki quizzically, obviously recognizing that Maya looked very much like her. Raising her chin towards Nikki, she asked, "She's your daughter too?" I thought and quickly said yes, that Nikki was my daughter. It was much easier to make her believe that I was Nikki's mother than to explain everything as I unloaded my bananas and tomatoes on the counter. Nikki and I had a good laugh in the car.

People are very curious about Maya because she is a little darker than me. Her biological father is black and his family is from Cuba. Nikki is one quarter Japanese, one quarter white, one quarter black and one quarter Native American. Maya is absolutely gorgeous with ringlets of curls on her head and bright dark eyes that sparkle and a smile that steals your heart. The supermarket is a place where women chat and ask questions indiscriminately. "She has such curly hair. And yours is so straight. Does her father have curly hair?" "Yes, he has lots of curls," I respond. I know that the woman is really asking if my husband is black or if the baby is adopted. But since that is not what she asked, I answered truthfully. My husband, Maya's only father, does in fact have very curly hair. Curls so beautiful that when he was a child people would say, "What gorgeous curls and what a shame on a boy." Another woman had the nerve to ask if Maya was my grand daughter. When I said she was my daughter, she dug her hole even deeper. "How wonderful that God made it possible for you to have a child so late in life." Admittedly I was 47 and Maya was only 2. But I had often been told I looked much younger than my years because I never wore make-up. And there is nothing in my relationship with Maya that says grandmother. She calls me Mommy. And I reprimand her for touching the candy in the check-out lane. It is true that I am a couple of years older than Maya's biological grandmother. But still.

My own mother does not think it is the best idea for me to continue a relationship with Nikki and her family. But Tim and I knew they loved her dearly when Maya's great grandmother and grandmother gave me a photo album of all of Maya's ancestors and living relatives on her mother's side -- with name and address and relationship written on the back of each one of them. They made the album with the belief that they would never see Maya again. If I had taken Maya from them, this would have enabled her to find them one day. I also knew how much they loved her when her great grandmother gave me a gold locket that was hers to give Maya when she got older. They asked if they could send her cards and presents from time to time. They were honest with themselves in what must have been one of the most difficult decisions of their lives: They admitted that they felt incapable of raising a child with diabetes who would require insulin injections for the rest of her life. Tim and I realized we could not remove a baby from a family that loved her so much. So, after one of our initial meetings and discussing how we could go forward, I hugged Maya's grandmother -- her Mima -- and asked, "We can make this work, right? We can have Maya feel that we are one big family who love her, right?" And through her tears and tight hug, Mima agreed. My commitment to Nikki's family was that I would not take Maya from them. They trusted me. Almost two years later, we are one large family created through adoption.

So, despite my mother's concerns, I continue to maintain a relationship with Maya's family. My mother asks me, "What if she runs away to go live with her mother?" Given the economic disparities of our families, I tell my mother that I think Maya might like the comforts of our life better than the harshness of her mother's life. But it is my husband who has more thoughtful answer to that question. "What better place to run away than to her mother, where she is loved as much as she is here?" (He always has such a sensible approach to problems.) Still concerned, my mother wonders. "What if Maya rejects you and doesn't want any part of you when she grows up?" My only response to that, perhaps naively, is: "If that happens, then I haven't done too good a job, have I?" Lastly, my mother (and others) ask, "Aren't you afraid her mother will come and take Maya or try to kidnap her?" I think my best approach to prevent that is to give her as much contact with her daughter as she wants, I tell them. And to be as good to her as I am to my other family members. So that she has a relationship with me and will not want to hurt me. I know that it feels odd and discomforting to others in the abstract. One relative said that it crossed her mind, when she first met Nikki at Maya's second birthday party, that Nikki could just grab her and run. (She added that she quickly realized how silly that was when she got to know Nikki.)

Nikki and I have become close. I am not her mother. But I am, in some way, like an elder aunt or sister that she can talk to. She confides in me about her boyfriends. And I chide her when I think she needs to do something differently. And I press a $20 bill into her hand when she has no money on her, much as my elder brothers press money into my hand when they know things are tight in my family. I want her to know that Maya is in a family that cares for her well, so I keep her apprised of Maya's progress. And I send her photos, and paintings by Maya, and curls from her first haircut. But I don't mince words when Maya misbehaves or wears me out, pretending that it is all milk and honey. And I admit to my shortcomings readily. I hope that through being real with Nikki, with my faults and strengths, that she can see her way to having a good relationship with a man and raising children herself one day. And I hope that she knows she can come to me for help when she needs it; and that I will help if I am able to.

If Maya wants to go live with her mother some day, as long as it is not in anger towards me, I will have fostered the relationship between them that I hope for.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Dinnertime at the Rago-Gardners

“That’s a soaker.” That’s what Tim or I used to declare, early in our marriage, when we faced a frying pan or baking dish with a cooked-on mess. Especially when we were too tired from work to exert the elbow grease required to clean it. After having cleared the table and washed all the dishes by hand in the narrow kitchen in our apartment, one of us would look at that last pot on the stove, sigh, and say, “That’s a soaker.” The other spouse inevitably would respond, “A soaker, for sure.” Once declared a soaker, a pan didn’t have to be washed that night. Rather, we would cover the bottom with hot water and dish soap, and place it on the back burner of the stove to soak overnight -- thereby making the grease and cooked-on blackness easier to remove the following day.

I remember dinnertime fondly in the early days of our marriage. We both would come home relatively late from work. Neither of us were 9 to 5 kind of people. I worked in New York City as a lawyer and Tim worked at Nyack High School as a math teacher. I would work late so as to impress the bosses, put in face time, and bill an exorbitant amount of hours in a day. Tim would work late to create a special program that he would use to teach his math students. Tim worked harder than most teachers and I worked harder than many lawyers.

Still, we believed in having dinner together. Cooking at home, setting the table, and sharing a meal together. Unless it was too late in the night to eat when we finally got home. I took pride in cooking for Tim. He delighted in my meals, claiming that he was so happy he married an Italian who knew how to cook. He would refer to himself as IBM, Italian By Marriage, when he finally knew enough about Italian food to be comfortable with labeling all the different cuts of macaroni. In the early days, my repertoire of meals was new to him and he enjoyed each meal. He even learned to make a few as well as many Italian mothers I know. For instance, his homemade pizza and his spaghetti with clam sauce rival the best.

I developed a rotation of good, healthy, quick meals when we were first married. Getting home late in the evening meant that I couldn’t spend too much time in the kitchen because we would be hungry and needed to eat sooner than later. Often I would start each meal with olive oil and garlic in the frying pan. To this day, I joke that even before I know what I am cooking, I can be sure that olive oil and chopped garlic in the frying pan will turn into something good. Some days I sautéed spinach and collard greens and just served canned salmon and leftover potato salad for dinner. Other days, I used the olive oil and garlic to sauté canned octopus, scallops, and clams with sun-dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts to pour over angel hair spaghetti. Or I fried Italian sausage (when we still ate red meat) and peppers and onions and leftover boiled potatoes. Naturally, these meals would leave behind many “soakers.” Whoever got home earliest would tend to washing the soaker.

Things were easy in those early days in many ways. There were just the two of us. And even though we didn’t have a dishwasher, there weren’t that many dishes to wash. We usually divided the work by having me cook and Tim doing most of the clean up. On days when he cooked, I cleaned up. “I cooked, you clean,” was an oft-heard refrain in our home.

Life got more complicated as Tim worked on developing his own business out of the house and I took on more complex cases as a lawyer. While I still enjoyed cooking as much as before, it became harder as my workload got heavier and I gained more responsibility. After the two children came, Tim would cook almost as much as I did. I would tease him that he didn’t consider color in his cooking. He would serve white fish, white rice and white corn on the same night. “Is that your all-white meal?” I’d ask. I had always taken color into consideration when cooking, so that it looked appealing on the plate. Yellow rice, a bright salad and chicken cutlets made for an appealing plate. (I was interested to read in a health magazine that colorful foods have varied beneficial vitamins and anti-oxidants that are good for you.) And I almost always served a green vegetable with a meal. Dinner was not complete unless it had a starch, a protein, and a green vegetable as far as I was concerned.

Cleaning became an issue and, when Michela was two years old, we hired a fulltime housekeeper/nanny. She watched the children after they came home from daycare or school and completed the routine chores around the house, including cleaning the kitchen. I still cooked almost every night, with Tim filling in. But, after clearing the table, we left the rinsed dishes and dirty pots on the kitchen counter and stove. (We now had a dishwasher which meant there was no washing of dishes required, but the dishwasher still had to be loaded and unloaded and we left that to Barbara.)

For more than eight years, we lived a charmed life. We could work as hard as we liked to and still enjoy dinner together and a clean house. We pushed dinnertime back to eight o’clock because that is when I returned home from work and was able to cook. Barbara left each evening at eight o’clock, just as we sat down to eat. We had no opportunity to label a pot or pan “a soaker” because, in effect, they were all soakers – left for Barbara.

Recently, due to the downturn of the economy, we were forced to let Barbara go. Trent is now 12 and getting out in the world on his own more; Barbara’s leaving didn’t affect him much. Her leaving affected Michela, but at age 10, even she didn’t need Barbara as much as she used to. Still, Michela was heartbroken not to come home to Barbara everyday. Barbara had potty trained her and shared in all her secrets for more than eight years. Michela was Barbara’s baby girl, since Barbara only had a son. For Maya, being new to the family and only a baby, Barbara’s leaving had no effect at all. Indeed, she has never mentioned Barbara’s name since she left. For Tim, Barbara’s leaving means that he does the laundry down in the basement while he works.

Barbara’s leaving affected me in several ways. I am now the person who takes care of Maya all day long and cleans the house. I am also the person who does most of the cleaning in the kitchen: floor, dishes, and washing the pots and pans. My cooking hasn’t been affected much. I still start many meals with olive oil and garlic in the frying pan. Tonight, for instance, I started the meal with olive oil and onions and red peppers in two large frying pans. I sautéed the vegetables and placed pork chops over them. While they browned and as I turned them over and over, I made a green salad with Romaine lettuce, plum tomatoes, pitted black olives, dried cranberries, pignoli nuts and, of course, extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Leftover potato salad served as the starch. After we finished eating, Tim cleared the table and unloaded the dishwasher, loading it again with the evening dishes. For me to wash, he left behind the salad bowl (I don’t like to put my vintage yellow ware bowl in the dishwasher and he knows that) and the two frying pans. I washed and dried the salad bowl, wiped up the kitchen counters, and the stovetop, and faced the frying pans. Tired from a day in which Maya never napped, I looked at the them wearily. “Soakers, for sure,” I declared.