Monday, May 31, 2010

When Maya Looks Back

In the shower today alone (without Maya) for the first time in a long time, I enjoyed having the entire showerhead to myself. I imagined a day when I would be able to take a shower without Maya asking to get in with me. Then I thought, “Don’t hurry up these years by wishing them away. Savor the moments. Most people don’t get to do babyhood and toddler-hood a second time with the benefit of hindsight and having experienced it once before. You know how fast the years go.” And I thought about all the things I will miss when Maya gets older. I will miss how she plays at my feet and chatters to herself, singing songs she has recently heard and, sometimes, even practicing curse words she has heard. (Ooops!) I will miss how I hear her feet paddling along the wooden floors coming to my bed in the middle of the night and how, when she arrives eye level at my bedside she quietly, and in her best voice, asks if she can sleep next to me, “for just a little while.” I may even miss how she wears my Tupperware on her feet and skates around the kitchen floor or spreads every block and toy on the living room carpet.

Sometimes I am saddened for the mother who gave her life, her Mommy Nikki, because she misses a lot of these little milestones: Being able to open the refrigerator all by herself. Being able to identify all the vegetables on her plate – and liking them! Being able to pour a cup of juice. Being able to climb up onto the toilet to reach the sink and brush her teeth. Being able to take off her own clothes or put on her own seatbelt. Every day, Maya learns something new. I try to keep Nikki apprised and to let her enjoy in the small miracles of our life when she is here or when we go visit her. I have her brush Maya’s hair (Nikki is much better at that than I am). Or test her blood sugar or choose her clothes or read Maya’s favorite books or snuggle in bed with Maya during the night.

People ask if this isn’t confusing to Maya. I don’t think it is. It’s her normal. She will happily announce to people, “I have two mommies!” Most of the people we are with understand what she means. Sometimes people look at me wondering if I am a lesbian. I laugh and let them wonder. Lately Maya has been re-telling the story of her birth and that of her siblings, Trent and Michela., checking with me in a questioning tone to see if she has it right ‘”Mommy, Trent and Michela were taken from your stomach by the doctors and then brought to you to take care of them?” I answer, “Yes, Maya.” “I was taken by the doctors from my Mommy Nikki’s stomach and then brought to you?” Even though this is a pretty shorthand version of the truth, I agree with her because this is how she seems happy envisioning things at the moment. Little by little she will understand the full details.

How will she come to view the circumstances of her life when she is older? I don’t think we can really know. Open adoption is still very much an “experiment” in some sense. (Although in another sense, it is a very tried and true tradition for family to raise another family member’s child, when the biological mother is unable. In our case, the only difference is that we became family with Nikki through Maya; we weren’t family prior to Maya’s birth.) Indeed, raising children in and of itself is as much an experiment. Before becoming a parent, no one has had experience in raising their children. And no one knows what the outcome of his or her efforts will be. That is the definition of what an experiment is, in my book. Trying something you’ve never done before and having faith that it will work out for the best.

Towards the middle or end of this "experiment" we call our lives, when Maya looks back, I hope that she sees that her mother and I worked at making the best choices for her life that we could. I hope she remembers the fondness that Nikki and I share for one another. I hope that Maya does not view my role as a person who has taken away another person's baby, but rather loved her enough to want to bring her and her family into my life. I hope that she sees that Nikki had little choice once the state got involved, but made the best choice for her under the circumstances. I hope that she sees how both her families worked hard to become one family for her sake -- because we all love her. And that both families compromised in order to make the situation work.

I hope that Maya will look back fondly on the times we took her to visit her brother and cousin and aunts and uncles and grandparents and mother and sisters -- on holidays, on their birthdays. I hope she sees how I always thoughtfully pick presents for her family and make sure that I don't forget them. And that I share the best photographs, pieces of artwork, and life stories with them, so they can be as proud of her as I am. I hope she will look fondly on the times her mother and other family members came to see her in her home, with her adopted family. That she enjoyed showing them her latest milestone: riding her tricycle; moving into a big girl bed; painting pictures and hanging them on "her" door in the kitchen.

I hope that she is proud of her birth family as much as her adoptive family. I hope she gains a skill for dealing with people from all walks of life, having walked between the two worlds of her two families. I hope she views the situation as lucky: to have two families even before she marries, when she will have three. (Unless by crazy coincidence, she marries a man from an open adoption who will also have two families! In which case she will have four families in her life!) Not to mention the family that she may one day create. I pray in my heart that she will not find any of us a burden. And that she will know that I did not find the openness of her adoption a burden. I hope she knows I enjoyed it -- I get to brag about her to the only other people in the world who love her as much as I do. I hope she knows that the openness was as much for me, as for her and her mother. I couldn't live with her adoption any other way. Maybe under some other circumstances, I would not have chosen this. But in this instance, for our entire extended family, the openness of the adoption is ideal.

***For other thoughts on how parents hope their children will view their open adoption, see here:

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Fake Birth Certificate

When a child is adopted, the local government issues a new birth certificate to the family. The new birth certificate essentially obliterates evidence of the child’s past, as though it never happened. Instead of showing that a child was born to the parents who actually gave birth to her -- and then indicating that the child is adopted into her new family and has a new name – the new birth certificate is issued as though the adoptive parents gave birth to the child on her birthday. In our case, Maya’s newly issued birth certificate asserts to the world that Tim and I gave birth to her in Pennsylvania in the exact hospital and at the exact moment that she actually was born. Her mother’s name – the person that actually did give birth to her – is nowhere to be seen on the newly issued birth certificate. Nor is her biological father’s name there. Instantly wiped out and erased by the government. Kind of like being in the witness protection program. The government creates a new identity for an adopted child and issues official government documents to perpetuate the lie. The only difference? Adopted children generally don’t need protection from anyone, particularly not from their original families. In the instances where children might need protection from abusive original families, perhaps this fiction is warranted. But, for the most part, adopted people WANT their original birth certificates and the only people they need protection from are the government bureaucrats that continue to deny them this fundamentally important information.

We have what is known in adoption circles as an “open” adoption. We have essentially extended our family to include Maya’s family, so that hopefully Maya will feel that she has not been ripped from her roots, but merely replanted in another part of her family garden. So, for Maya, she will always have access to her original birth certificate. She can ask her mother to see it when she is with her because we have a very good relationship with Maya's original family. But the original birth certificate no longer has any legal effect. It is null and void, essentially. As though her birth to her mother never really occurred the way that it did. It is as though the original birth certificate created a marriage and the second birth certificate represents a divorce decree. But instead of creating a new type of paperwork to represent reality – that Maya was born to a first set of parents and adopted to a second set – the government has taken the documentation that already exists and tries to make it seem as though the reality were different. The government tries to make it look as though Maya were born to Tim and me. Like forcing a square peg into a round hole.

I am completely comfortable with the fact that I am Maya’s mother. I don’t need her birth certificate to erase the existence of her original mother in order to make me feel like I am her mother. I know I am her mother. I feel like the birth certificate I have is a total fake. I would prefer if it said that Nevaeh Nikol, born to Nikki and Y.A. on her birth date at the hospital in Pennsylvania, will now be known as Maya Nevaeh Nikol, with her new parents Tim and Michelle, of New York. Why can’t the government create some new documentation to evidence the reality that we know to be true instead of insisting that it’s version of reality is the only one that it will document? Tim and I had never even heard of the town where Maya was born until we got involved with adopting her. We had surely never set foot there. It feels like such a sham to have government issued documents, with raised seal and all, claiming that we gave birth to her in a town we had never set foot in. I can’t begin to imagine what that feels like to a child or even grown adopted person. I imagine it gives one an instinctive sense of the irony of life and government authority.

I have asked my girlfriend who is adopted how she felt. She is an adopted person who has no interest in the mother who gave birth to her. She says she would just tell her "Thanks for doing the right thing. I have had a great life." I find this to be a little bit of denial. But what do I know? I am not an adopted person. I just can’t imagine not wanting to know my biological and personal history. I am like that. To her, her history is that of her adoptive parents, period. The history with her biological parents is irrelevant. Anyway, she doesn't feel the birth certificate is fake and says she sees it as necessary to show that she is the legal child of her parents.

I feel as though there must be another way -- particularly in an open adoption. In the days of closed adoptions, when parents tried to hide that their children were adopted, I can see the necessity of the fake birth certificate. It looks just like a real one. Unless one conducted a C.S.I.-like fiber test to determine whether the fibers are consistent with documents on the date of birth, it would be impossible for anyone to tell that the fake birth certificate is a government-issued forgery. I guess if you want your child to live a lie, the fake birth certificate serves you well. But when a child is always told that they are adopted and there are no secrets, I would think that the government could create a new kind of document to commemorate the new family relationships. I’ve heard of “born again” but even when one is “born again,” a new birth certificate is not issued. I don’t think a new birth certificate is appropriate for adoptions either.

I am fully behind the movement to open all original birth certificates to adopted people. I believe that the government has no right to be in collusion with the original parents in denying a person access to their original history. I don't understand why the parents’ rights are given more weight than the child's rights. Why does a parent have a greater right to erase history with the government’s blessing and complicity (and perhaps live in denial of ever having given birth)? What about a child’s right to know his or her own personal history? Who decided that the parents' wishes were more valuable than the child's right? The child had no say in the entire situation. The parents had some control over their choices. It is a screwed up system where the government surreptitiously works with parents to erase the evidence of having given birth to a child, in total defiance of what the child’s wishes might be.

With my daughter, when she gets old enough to understand, she will be able to see her original birth certificate at her mother’s house. Even if it is null and void. I may just explain to her that “your mother has your original birth certificate. I have the fake one they created because the government is too stupid to understand that I don't need to have my name on your birth certificate to know that I am your mother."

I guess that's part of what pisses me off. Why does the government think that I have to be on her birth certificate to be considered her mother? There are mothers that give birth and mothers that don't. Why does the government continue to insist that there is only one type of mother? Why does the government only recognize one type of mother? If they recognized adoptive mothers as legitimate mothers, they would give us an amended birth certificate or some document that represented our reality. Instead, if you're not the parent that gave birth, they will create a whole new fiction to make it look like you did. As though I need their documentation to tell me that I am my daughter’s mother. As though I need for them to obliterate Maya’s mother who gave birth to her and who loves her, for me to be a mother to Maya. Typical government: if the reality doesn't fit their story, they make the paperwork thick enough to cover the reality and make it look like the story they want to present.

Maya is lucky. In some ways. She will always have access to her personal history and original birth certificate. But she still must grow up knowing that the government sought to obliterate all evidence of her relationship with the mother that gave her life. Others are not so lucky. And they won’t know their history until we stop allowing the government to perpetuate the fiction that a child can only have one type of mother: the mother that gives birth. We must stop allowing the government to force our reality to fit their fiction.

Stepping down from my soapbox.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Tearing Down the House

We are in the midst of renovations. Anyone who has been through renovations will understand how this all unfolded after losing several shingles in a storm. Anyone who has been through renovations with a spouse will also understand how renovations bring to the forefront marital and familial conflicts -- and accords -- over what a home should look like.

Tim and I bought our house 17 years ago – at which time the home inspector told us we had 10 more years left on the roof. So we knew we were on borrowed time. Then, a few shingles began to break away with each storm. They were brittle to the touch and broke easily when retrieved from the front lawn, or worse, the neighbor’s front lawn. Our roof problem was becoming hard to hide or ignore.

Then came the severe spring storms that struck hard in Westchester County generally – and on our roof in particular -- recently. We could no longer delay getting a new roof. Why had we waited so long? There are several answers. Fear may have been one of the main reasons. Fear of the mess and upheaval that a new roof would entail. Fear of how much it would cost. Fear that there would be conflict over how best to do it. (Tim and I both have very strong design opinions.) There were other related reasons: the house had three layers of roof: the first cedar shake roof from 1921 (the underside of which one could see in the un-insulated attic), the second dark green asphalt roof; and the last speckled green and gray asphalt roof, probably dating from the late 60s. This meant that we had to shovel off all three layers and start over again according to the City Building Code. (Indeed, I believe the new code only allows two layers of roofing before it has to be ripped off – good for roofers; not so good for homeowners.) Tim has always wanted a very light colored roof – like those seen in Florida – to deflect the heat. I always thought they were inappropriate in the Northeast. I have always wanted a slate roof -- but I knew that would be out of our budget.

Another reason we waited so long is that we had always hoped to raise the dormer to the attic, along with insulating, so that we might use all of that untapped real estate – used now only for storing projects we had hoped to complete but long since abandoned; college and high school memorabilia; and “valuable” things set aside for prosperity. (Having spent time up there recently, I realize that my idea of “value” has changed over the years. I also realize that I don’t have as much time for “projects” as I once thought I did.) So, re-roofing meant not only putting on a new roof, but making other improvements at the same time.

And, once we have the carpenters coming. . . .

Closets are so scarce in our home. People just didn’t own many things, it seems, in the 1920s. As a family in the third millennium A.D., we have always needed more closet space. Or, at least I have. My clothes have been spread throughout all three bedrooms in the house: dresses in Trent's room; suits in Michela's room; and casual clothes in our room. I dreamed of a large walk-in closet where I could keep all my clothes together. I thought one would fit nicely where our upstairs terrace stood. I rationalized: we rarely use the terrace. (The terrace is accessed from Michela and Maya’s room and Michela has never been keen on my plan to “steal” her terrace.) We had also talked about taking Trent’s closet, which backed our room, in order to have another large closet along one wall of the master bedroom. (We are equal opportunity thiefs; Trent is equally unhappy about our stealing his closet and making his room smaller by building one in the corner.)

And, we need to knock a hole in the wall and put in French doors to the deck that Tim has been building for years now. Why not do that at the same time we put on the new roof as well?

And so, here we are. Thick in the middle of renovations. No room has been spared. To start, we had to go all through the house and take down the paintings so that plaster and saw dust didn’t wind up coating the surfaces. In our house, that was a day’s work in and of itself. Maybe because my mother didn’t like us to hang things on her walls because she wanted to keep the plaster intact. Or maybe because I can’t stand the idea of empty space. Or maybe we just enjoy a lot of artwork on our walls. For whatever the reason, in our house, we have numerous paintings on every horizontal surface. Bedrooms, hallways, living room, dining room, office, bathrooms, staircases. They all had paintings that had to be removed and bagged for protection during renovations. Then they all had to be placed somewhere where the contractors wouldn’t put a hammer through the canvasses and where Maya wouldn’t ride her toy train. After that, contractors’ paper had to be taped down on the floors to protect the wooden floors from damage. (The guys Tim works with are VERY careful. But still, damage to floors is hard to avoid during construction.) Lastly, plastic had to be draped over everything to protect it from plaster and saw dust. In fact, we never did put plastic over our bed and I swear that I have woken with plaster dust between my teeth and on my tongue many mornings now.

Choosing and purchasing materials is one aspect of renovations that I hope not to go through again for a long time. Tim and I finally did settle on a 50 year architectural roofing tile that reflects the sun to keep heating costs down. (I didn’t know why we chose 50 year shingles when we will be dead by then. Maybe Tim is optimistic about our longevity? I figured we could get the 30 year shingles and leave the kids with the problem.) I chose the color from among the colors that Tim approved: a light gray with green specks. It has turned out very nicely, even if some portions remain to be completed.

There were architectural materials we did agree needed to date to the 1920s in order to be in keeping with the rest of the house. We had purchased vintage French exterior doors at auction many years ago to put in the dining room, so they waited in the garage to be installed. We agreed that the walk-in closet needed a vintage French door to allow the light to come into the bedroom from the closet. Accordingly, I drove to Harlem to Demolition Depot and paid $325 (bargained down) for a used French door from the 1920s to fit the space. (I’m sure I had seen many on street corners being thrown out in the past years that I never picked up because I never knew I would need one.) We used the tall, vintage, double cabinet doors that I had scavenged from my friend’s apartment renovations for Trent’s closet doors. And we took the windows from the dining room to put in the raised dormer. We would use the vintage outdoor light fixtures from Fort Dix that we purchased at a tag sale to light the terrace and the deck. The terrace would get terra cotta tiles, like my grandmother’s terrace in Italy. And the old copper gutters would be replaced with new copper ones, which would age to a nice green patina over time. We agreed to hire a man to skim plaster over the sheetrock inside so that the new walls would match the old plaster ones and wouldn’t look so straight and naked. And we would have men skim stucco on the new outside walls to match the original tudor stucco.

Suffice to say, we have survived most of the decisions and much of the destruction. I now know more about construction and renovating than any woman should. (I won’t even get into the finer details of insulation: fiber glass versus shredded jeans?) I will just be glad when this is all over.

And we finally have the new roof that we have needed for so long. . . .

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Substitute Teacher

Trent came home from school recently. Said he had a frustrating day. When I asked why, he said, “I had that substitute teacher that thinks I can’t eat candy.” I already knew what this meant. Ever since Trent was 4 years old and in pre-k, there has been one substitute that gives candy to the entire class at the end of class. The entire class except Trent. Because he has diabetes and she doesn’t think he should have candy. Many times over the 10 years he has been in the school, he has tried to explain to her that he can have candy and that he merely needs to give himself insulin to “cover” the carbohydrates in the candy. She hasn’t budged over the years. Instead, she brings him a pencil. (He has a sizable collection of the pencils she has given him.)

Every year when Trent was younger, we went into school and had a little Diabetes 101 session with the class. We explained what diabetes is. We explained that Trent did not do anything wrong to get it. We explained that it was not contagious. We explained that he could eat anything as long as he had insulin to convert the glucose to energy. We answered questions. (“No, it is not at all related to AIDS.”) We talked about how Trent might look if his blood sugar was too low or too high. (“When little, the kids were always very protective of Trent and would inform the teacher if he looked funny.) And sometimes we had a little demonstration of how he checked his blood sugar by pricking his finger for blood and putting the blood on a strip in a glucose meter. (“If you think it’s gross, you don’t have to look. But Trent has to do this many times each day just to stay healthy and alive.”) Mostly, the kids were in awe that he was so brave and could check his own blood. They also thought his pump was “way cool.” The teachers were sometimes nervous and never real happy to see a needle or lancet in their classroom. But they were always impressed that Trent could calculate insulin doses for his H-tron or D-tron pump (pumps that Trent had before the new technology that calculates doses for the person with diabetes).

Sometimes teachers would make comments or do things that weren’t in keeping with our philosophy of diabetes. Our philosophy is that it is better to allow sweets and dose insulin than to deny them and risk Trent sneaking sweets without insulin. (Indeed, I once told Trent that if he asked I would give him ice cream for breakfast – and the insulin to cover – so that he needn’t ever sneak sweets. Would I really have done that? He never put me to the test. But he also never snuck sweets without bolusing insulin.) We tried to explain to the teachers that if cake and ice cream were healthy for the other children, it was also healthy for Trent. And that only foods that were unhealthy for other children were unhealthy for Trent. Too often, they didn’t get it. They often couldn’t get past the fact that they knew that their aunt Frannie or grandfather had diabetes and couldn’t eat sweets. Instead, they just assumed we were too permissive as parents. No matter how hard we tried to distinguish Type 1 from Type 2 diabetes, in some minds, it would not stick. Amazingly, even one of the school nurses didn’t get it and would give sugar free candy to Trent, assuming that he did not need insulin because it was “sugar-free." She did not understand that the sugar was not what we counted; that it was the carbohydrates that mattered.

We tried to talk to the teacher or the principal or someone at school whenever these misunderstandings arose and made Trent feel left out or segregated. But no matter who we spoke with, there remained the one substitute teacher that refused to believe that Trent could eat candy. She thought she was being protective and nice by bringing in pencils for him. But she didn’t seem to understand the issue from the kid’s point of view. A kid wants to be treated, usually, like the other kids in class. Especially when they are getting candy. So, when Trent came home again announcing that The Substitute With the Special Pencil for him had been at school, I sighed and asked to see his pencil. Instead of showing me, he went on to describe how he finally convinced her to give him candy, by showing his pump and how it connected to his stomach. Success! I thought. Finally, after 10 years. Given that Trent is leaving this school at the end of the year, to go on to high school, I thought this was a fitting end to his time at the school. Trent wasn’t so sure. It had been frustrating for him to endure yet another time. And, in the end, she would only give him one piece of candy. Even though she gave the other kids more than one piece. However, he didn’t miss the pencil.