Navigating Adoption, Part 5

Continued from Part 4

(And Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

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Getting Abigail home was a flurry of excitement and relief…for us. We were relieved to be home, eating American Mexican food, sleeping in our own beds, with all of our kids under one roof and excited to start our journey as a family of 6. But for Abigail, coming home was more like moving into a stranger’s house who ate weird food, spoke in a different language, and decided that they were now her boss.

Needless to say we had no idea what lay ahead of us that summer. I can honestly remember thinking that adopting an older child would be so EASY because they were already POTTY TRAINED and what in the world else is there that’s hard about parenting except for POTTY TRAINING. (Side note-I SUCK at potty training. Big time. Like we-should-have-bought-stock-in-pull-ups-a-long-long-time-ago suck.) So here we were, at home with this GORGEOUS, tiny little girl and now we could just move on with our life as a complete family. No more pregnancy tests, adoption paperwork, or perusing the interwebs for waiting children. We were done. So let’s just make family dinners, go on picnics, and sign them up for soccer. Done.

But those first few months were HARD. Quite possibly the hardest few months of my entire life. All four kids were home for the summer and my sweet Abigail had SO MUCH to process and grieve. I know we don’t like to think negatively of the adoption process, but there is just so much loss and heartache and confusion for these sweet kids. Can you imagine being totally uprooted at THREE YEARS OLD? Without being able to communicate with those now in your charge? I had a ton of moments of being TOTALLY and completely overwhelmed. I felt ill equipped to help her and still be available for my other kids. I thought I could just parent her like I did the other three and she would magically forget her grief and anger and confusion. And when that didn’t work I decided we needed back up.

John and I were desperate to find some help. Someone who could help us understand what Abigail was going through and to be able walk this road with her.

Enter Karyn Purvis. Or as I like to call her, Mary Poppins.

We went on a weekend retreat to a conference called “Empowered to Connect” and were floored by how much Karyn knew about Abigail without ever having met her. Dr. Purvis has made it her life mission to understand children from hard places and to help families to be able to create an environment where they flourish and grow into who God made them to be.

Here’s a 4 minute sample of what Dr. Purvis teaches about connection…

 

Honestly, her teaching is transformative for ALL parents and kids – not only those from hard places. If you aren’t familiar with her work, start with her book The Connected Child. I promise – it’s a game changer.

We came back from that weekend ready to dive into her world and meet her there. Not for the purposes of changing her behavior, but solely to connect. We put in the work required to help her navigate her emotions as best she could at such at a young age. We cried with her. We held her even when she sometimes said she didn’t want us to. We learned what made her laugh and what made her dance. We took her to the Ethiopian restaurant in town (well, her Daddy did because Mama just can’t with the injera…another post, another day). We showed her pictures of her past when it was appropriate. We talked about Ethiopia. We snuggled. We drank coffee in the afternoons together. And we gave her space when she needed that, too.

The truth is we STILL have to remind ourselves that she carries inside of her this whole other story that we don’t get to know. This family that loved her, this country that was familiar, this language that she knew. I would give anything to have even a glimpse into what her life was like before coming to us. To know what she looked like as a baby, to watch her take her first steps, to hear her say her first words. But we’ll never get that back, and neither will she. That’s the hard stuff of adoption.

Oh – and the hair. The hair is also hard. I worked really hard to get this very first row, y’all. Check out my 2010 stylings…

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That only took me 6 days.

So I got smart and just started having Vanja do it.

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And I found out that apparently it’s not supposed to take 6 days. Whatever, you can do her whole head in two hours Vanja, but can you watch three seasons of Mad Men in ONE WEEK? That’s what I thought. Play to your strengths people.

We have learned so much over these past 5 years with Abigail. And not just about her and parenting, but about ourselves. She is an INCREDIBLE kid. I’ve never seen a kid with more grit, tenacity, selflessness and optimism as this kid. She is the first to share and the last to complain. Her laugh at physical comedy makes ME want to fall down the stairs. And her grip around your neck when you hug her can fill you up for days.

Abigail means “Joy of the Father” – and I cannot think of a more appropriate namesake for this child.

She is a joy.

We had no idea what we were getting into in 2010, but who ever really does? So thankful that God was and is patient with our imperfections as we learn what it means to be family. And I’m thankful for a husband who is constantly engaged with the hearts of our kids. We screw up ALL the time. Like daily. But I’m learning that it’s not the screw-ups that define your relationship to your spouse or your kids. It’s the moments afterwards. The I’m-Sorrys and the I-Love-Yous and the Lets-Play-Uno-for-the-Thousandth-Time-Today-Because-I-Want-to-Do-What-You-Want-to-Do. Those are the things that stick.

Adoption has been an incredible part of our story – but our stories don’t end at Gotcha Day. In fact, that’s usually when they are just beginning…

 

 

Navigating Adoption, Part 4

I thought this series would be just 4 parts, but turns out I need 5. Shocker.

Continued from Part 3

We arrived in Ethiopia exhausted and full of anticipation. It was late and we were taken straight from the airport to the guest house where we would be staying while in country. Most agencies partner with a sort-of rental house where families can stay while they are waiting to clear immigration. In our guest house, we had a room with a queen size bed and a twin fold away bed for Abigail, plenty of storage for our luggage, our own bathroom, and a shared living space (kitchen, dining area, living room, patio). All of our meals were prepared for us and they even washed our clothes for us. The people that run these homes are incredibly gracious and probably know more about the adoption process than most of the families they serve.

So the next morning we got ready and loaded up in a van to head over to the transition home where Abigail had been staying. We tried hard not to peak as they brought her out.

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She was so LITTLE and sweet and scared and strong and beautiful.

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We spent a couple of hours there at the home with her, playing with her friends, seeing her room, talking to the nannies, singing songs with the kids – precious time that allowed us to be the guests in HER world, not the other way around. I honestly wish we would have stayed longer and maybe even let her stay one more day before we took her back with us. But we were so anxious to have our daughter with us, to learn her, to hold her, to be her Mom and Dad. So we gathered up her things and loaded back up in the van to head back to the guest house. Abigail had only been in a car a handful of times and had TERRIBLE motion sickness (sometimes still does) and ended up throwing up her banana into my hands. I think that was the moment I really felt like her Mom. 😉

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We spend the next few days getting to know each other – mostly at the guest house, and a couple of outings in the city. Staying at the guest house allowed us to interact with a couple of other families and their new kiddos, which was an unexpected blessing for all of us.

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AJ6This was her favorite way to get around. 😉

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I was learning how to guard her little heart, moment by moment. How to keep her from going to any adult that tried to pick her up. How to communicate with her over language barriers, and how to sit in silence with her and hold her when I knew her heart was grieving. Honestly, the time we spent in Ethiopia with her was mostly easy. I think we were all honeymooning.

Some of the realities of her pain and grief didn’t really start to show until the flights home. It was a long and grueling two days of travel to get back to Memphis and by the time we landed in the states she kind of didn’t want anything to do with us.

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Who could blame her? Add to the fact that she’d never flown and already had motion sickness issues – there was no way for us to explain just how much longer each flight would be and where we were traveling to each time. Can you imagine just getting on a plane with people you’ve known for a week? Not knowing exactly where you’re going? Or how long it will take to get there? With no one that speaks your language? It’s a miracle that she’s still not mad about that whole situation.

But we finally made it back home. It was an amazing homecoming with people we love greeting us at the airport.

And I’ll never forget the moment that Charis and Abigail met.

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Best friends from this moment forward and never stopped holding hands.

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We headed home to start figuring out what life looked like as a family of 6…

…to be continued.

Navigating Adoption, Part 3

Holding up to my end of the bargain and finishing up the Navigating Adoption Series before I move on to anything else… I’ll post part 3 today and part 4 sometime within the next few days.

Here are parts 1 and 2.

So where did we leave off?  Jones came home and we went from 2 to 3 kids – honestly one of the easier transitions for me.  Of course that could be because I wasn’t recovering from the birthing process.  Or because Jones was the easiest baby on the planet.  But really, by the time the third baby comes along you realize that you aren’t going to break them.  And that no matter what you do they are GOING to end up in therapy talking about you – so the pressure’s off.

We always knew we’d adopt again.  And not just because of my fondness for even numbers.  We didn’t want Jones to be the only person in our family that was black – or adopted.  But we weren’t sure if we would adopt domestically again or internationally the second time.

(Cue – sign from the Universe.)

At that time in my life I was thinking a lot about what really mattered in life, what it means to love, and other generally super deep questions that you can answer in a week.  John was up late working one night and I was channel surfing (pre-streaming Netflix).  I landed on a news story out of Africa.  Honestly, I couldn’t even tell you what the story was about – but it brought me to tears.  Tears because I saw faces of parentless children.  Tears because they were hungry. Tears because I have so much – and I’ve never once worried about my children not having enough.

(Sidenote: Once when Jac was really little- like 3 or something, I thought it would be a great idea to show him youtubes of poverty-stricken African children.  He was and still is the world’s littlest hoarder and his favorite word was “mine”.  As we watched the video I told him, “See bud? There are kids all over the world that don’t have ANY toys at all and sometimes they don’t even have enough food.”  He JUMPED out of my lap, ran to the toy box, threw his body over his toys and screamed “They are coming to get my stuff!!!!!” Fail.)

Back to my revelation…

All of the sudden all of the reasons I had for waiting to adopt again (the size of our house, the money, the chaos of little ones) didn’t seem to matter anymore.  All of the sudden I felt like the wealthiest, most available, most OBVIOUS person in the whole world to add another child to our family.  So I did what any reasonable person who was ready to adopt again would do – I got on the internet.  And within 15 minutes I had found the one.  His name was Abdi, he was from Ethiopia,  and he was freaking ADORABLE.  I called John over to the computer so he could meet his new son.  Pause: Thank God for a husband who is always willing to roll with me and my very spontaneous, yet resolutely decided ideas and never once giggle loud enough that I can hear him.  Play:  He agreed that Abdi was the cutest orphan on the internet and that we should go ahead and book a flight to go get him.  I promptly sent an email to inquire about what day might be best to go pick him up because I’m very good with details.

A lot of people have asked us why Ethiopia.  The truth is – it just made sense for us.  We knew we wanted another black child and there aren’t really that many countries in Africa that adopt to American parents without having to live in their country for a time period.  The laws and policies in Ethiopia have changed pretty drastically since we adopted and now you have to travel twice, once for the court date and then back 6-8 weeks later to pick up your child.  And truthfully it’s a much longer and more tedious process than it was just four years ago.  But there are other countries that are opening up more in Africa, and of course there are dozens of other countries that could be a great match for your family.  The crazy thing is, each country has their own set of guidelines for who is eligible to adopt.  China even has a BMI requirement for their adoptive parents.  If you want to play around and get lost in the interwebs check out: http://adoption.state.gov/country_information.php

So back to Abdi… I heard back from Sue, Abdi’s caseworker and the director of an adoption agency out of Florida, the very next day.  Turns out, there’s a HELLA lotta paperwork to adopt internationally.  She asked if we were “paper ready” and I told her that I was ALWAYS ready for any kind of paper.  She explained that being paper ready meant that your homestudy and dossier were complete and ready to be submitted.

Oh.

Well then, no.

But have you seen his picture??!?!  We NEED him.

Luckily for us, we had literally STUMBLED upon one of the best adoption caseworkers out there.  Sue was incredible.  She said that if we weren’t paper ready then Abdi would probably not be available by the time we were.  BUT – that she was confident that she could move as quickly as we could in order to get a referral for us.  (Referral is adoption talk for a child that they present to you – you can either accept or deny referrals for any reason. Which sounds kind of harsh, but everyone involved wants what is best for the child and sometimes your family may not be the best match.)

We started our communication with Sue in late November and had a referral for an equally adorable little GIRL by February 8th.  Her name was Abiyal (pronounced AhBEHlay…we think) and she was right around 3 years old.  (Sidenote: Ethiopia doesn’t keep birth records, so almost no one in the country knows their actual birthday.  I’ll get back to that in a bit.)  As soon as I saw her picture I knew she was mine.

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We learned that she was from a small village on the west side of the country near Sudan and that she had already been moved to Addis Ababa (the capital) to our agency’s interim care home.  My hero/husband finished up all of our dossier in a matter of days and our paperwork was on its way to our agency and then to Ethiopia. (But please don’t put pressure on yourself to turn paperwork around like John Carroll. I think he thrives off of weird challenges like this.)

At the time (4 years ago) you did not have to be in Ethiopia for the court date.  They had a hearing without you there where they finalized the adoption.  Once you cleared court you submitted (more) paperwork to the U.S Embassy in order to get a visa to bring your kiddo home.  The time between court and embassy clearance for us was about six weeks (can be MUCH longer now sadly). (I think I like parenthesis.)  So on June 12, 2010 we boarded the first of 4 flights to go get our little girl.

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To be continued… Stay tuned for Part 4: Attachment in Adoption, the good, the bad and the ugly cry.

A New Advent Experiment…

So I know you don’t need ONE. MORE. THING. to do this holiday season. Between the decorating and the elves and the christmas lights and the shopping and the baking and the churching and the wrapping and the gingerbread house making, December can feel like something you just SURVIVE. But I wanted to share one idea on how to TRY to MAYBE remind your kids that there was a baby in a manger that started this whole situation.

I ordered Ann Voskamp’s “Unwrapping the Greatest Gift” from Amazon last week and picked up a little Advent Tree from Target over the weekend.

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The great thing about this book is that most of the work is done FOR you, which is my favorite kind of work. Each day has a short story and a free downloadable paper ornament that coincides with the day. So all I had to do was print them off – I did four small sets to put in the Advent Tree (so each kid could hold one during the story) and one large one to print on cardstock for the actual ornament.

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The ornaments are hung every day on a “Jesse Tree” which comes from Isaiah 11:1 where Jesus is referred to as a shoot coming up from the stump of Jesse, the father of David. You can use almost anything for your Jesse Tree, an actual tree, some twigs in a vase, a cut out on butcher paper, really whatever you have on hand.

So after dinner, I explained what the Jesse Tree was and what Advent meant. The kids each took out their mini ornament from the Advent calendar and John read the story from the book. After that we let Jones hang the first ornament on the Jesse tree.

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Nothing super elaborate, but a way to have conversations about the tiny baby and not just the tiny, creepy elves. (I actually kind of love the elf, but that makes me a sick individual and I know that.) And if you want to get super creative you can throw in some little trinkets that go with each days’ story into the Advent calendar. I thought about trying to do that, but it pushed me over the holiday edge and I try to stay AWAY from the holiday edge as much as possible. So here’s to Christmas, the crazy part and those fleeting, sweet, meaningful moments, however rare they may be.

Navigating Adoption, Part 2

In Navigating Adoption, Part 1, we talked about beginning the adoption process and what it all means. Now let’s get into some of the most frequently asked questions once we adopted our baby bundle… 

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FAQ #1 – How did your family and friends react to you adopting a black baby

We started the paperwork process with our agency and began making announcements to our friends and family just like we would if we found out we were pregnant.  For the most part, everyone reacted with excitement and congratulations, but I was getting a feeling that my mom wasn’t thrilled with our decision.  After a little prodding, she admitted that she was concerned about us adopting a black child.  We had a very honest conversation – she was concerned for the new baby, but also for our biological kids.  Her biggest worry was that they would be teased and singled out for having a black sibling.

The thing that I realized while talking to my mom was that adoption has changed drastically in the last couple of decades.  My mom didn’t grow up with openly adoptive families.  And even when I was growing up, adoption wasn’t something anyone really talked about publicly. More often than not, families sort of just pretended the kids were biological.  But that’s kind of a hard act to pull off when you’re vanilla and the kids are chocolate.  (Kind of reminds me of that scene in Elf when Buddy realizes he’s a human and not an elf.  “Santa?! I KNOW HIM!”)

But the truth is that it would be very unlikely that my kids would be singled out – in fact, they wouldn’t even know a world without transracial families.  I think it was hard for my Mom to imagine that world – especially since she grew up in the South in the 60s.  In fact, my mom is one of the most loving and nonracist people that I know – and truthfully I was just glad she was honest with me and we were able to have that conversation.  And of course now he’s just another grandkid to her! A giant, steak eating, rough and tumble grandkid, but a grandkid nonetheless.

So we brought our little chocolate bundle home from the hospital and headed straight out of town for Thanksgiving with him.  Our family was excited to meet him and we were anxious to see initial reactions.  We definitely had several “Oh he’s gonna be a NBA/NFL player!” comments which we would immediately respond to with “OR a SCIENTIST.”  Of course now we are pretty sure hitting people for a living will be much more appealing to him than the periodic table – but we could be wrong.

Honestly, the adjustment was pretty minimal for us.  Our friends and family have loved our adopted kids the exact same way that they love our biological kids.  The saddest part for me was hearing that one of our family members’ best friends essentially cut off all ties because of Jones.  Isn’t that the saddest, shallowest, most heartless thing you’ve ever heard?  It broke my heart for our family member and for that person – their loss.

FAQ #2 – What is an open adoption and why did you choose that?

We have an open adoption with Jones’s birthmother (Faith).  In the world of adoption, the word “open” has a hundred different meanings because really there is a sliding scale of openness that is ultimately up to you and the birthparents.  During one of our trainings at Bethany we learned that most of the research is now showing that the more open you can be (so long as it’s healthy for everyone), the better for all parties involved.  Open can mean anything from just sending pictures once a year to having the birthparents babysit.  Obviously there are quite a lot of circumstances that don’t allow for this, but we decided that day that we would prefer an open adoption if possible.

I hear from Faith pretty often.  We text a lot and I see her every other month or so.  Nothing formal and sometimes Jones isn’t even with us.  But it has been SO great to have her in our lives and to know that she knows that he is being loved well.  I’m sure as he gets older that relationship will evolve and adapt to what they both need.  But for these past 6 years we have all been grateful that there are so many people who love Jones and want what’s best for him.  She is a courageous woman who has all of my respect and gratitude.

(Unfortunately we don’t have a relationship with his birthfather.  We are hoping as the years go by that we can at least get a photo of him so that Jones can know what he looked like.)

FAQ #3 – What the hell do you mean you breastfed him?

You read that right.  Go ahead.  Read it again.

Ok, so you might have drawn 17 conclusions about me at this point and decided to stop reading here.  And if you’re still reading you’re at least curious.  As in train wreck curious.  And I’m ok with that.

I breastfed my first two babies and while it wasn’t necessarily my favorite thing in the whole wide world (being milked really shouldn’t be your favorite thing in the whole wide world, people), it was still a great bonding experience and ultimately the best thing you can give to them in those early weeks and months.  So when I heard that it was possible to breastfeed a baby even if you hadn’t birthed them yourself, I was definitely curious.  I won’t go into all of the technical details here, but suffice it to say that you can indeed produce milk without a pregnancy – in my case not enough by itself, but definitely enough that it’s worth it.  At almost every feeding I would breastfeed and then give him a bottle to make up the difference.  I did that for about 2 months before I realized that he wanted steak and not 2 ounces of breastmilk to supplement his formula.

 FAQ #4 – Do I have to know how to do African American hair?

The short answer is no.  The longer answer is kind of.  This may not have even occurred to some of you, but hair is kind of a big deal.  Did you know that you really shouldn’t wash African American hair but once every week or two?  Or that it’s customary to let a little boy’s hair grow until his first birthday?  Or that little girls need to sleep in a silk hair wrap on a silk pillowcase so that cotton doesn’t take all of the moisture out of their hair?

In Memphis, the population is over 50% African American.  And the last thing that I wanted to do was take my sweet little chocolate baby to the grocery store with nappy, unkempt hair to be seen by all the grandmas who were talking about me under their breath to the cashier.  So I did my research.  And more importantly, I asked for help.  Because here’s the thing – people LOVE to help.  We now have a “dream team” for our kids’ hair.  The great guys at the barber shop clean up Jones’s lines and tell John which hair lotions to put on his scalp every night.  And Vanja.  Thank God for Vanja.  She has taught me how to do cornrows, box braids, twists, you name it .  And even better than that she will just DO Abigail’s hair for me when I just can’t muster the time or creativity.  And really, that’s all the time these days. Which brings me to my last FAQ, which really isn’t a question….

YOU NEED A POSSE. 

Listen, I know we’ve all heard that it takes a village.  And it does.  But it takes a COLORFUL village.  A village of grandmas and aunts and friends and cousins and teachers and church members and neighbors of all ages, colors, beliefs and personalities.  Because ultimately, this whole parenting thing isn’t about you anyways.  It’s about your kid.  It isn’t about making your kid just like you, but helping them figure out who they are and surrounding them with all kind of people doing all kinds of things that look very different from you sometimes.  It’s about admitting when your experience falls short of what they might need and asking for help.  And to do that you have to have a posse.  People you know and trust and can be in community with.

For us, that’s come from our neighborhood, church and schools.  All of the kids have gone to a predominately black preschool and now elementary school. Our neighborhood is incredibly diverse.  And we are very intentional to make sure our relationships aren’t too vanilla.  This isn’t just to make sure we have someone to do their hair.  We want to surround our kids with people that we want them to be like.  People who leave goodness in their wake.

So make some new friends if you need to.  Friends that don’t look like you or live where you live or do what you do.  Honestly, isn’t what we need more of anyways?  Regardless of whether or not you adopt?  People that are willing to step outside of comfort and familiarity in search of something fuller.  It’s probably one of the greatest things you can do for your family and yourself.  And I GUARANTEE it won’t be boring.

To be continued….Stay tuned for Part III – Up late and making major decisions about African orphans…

Navigating Adoption, Part 1

I originally wrote this series for a friend’s blog, GlassHeel.com. But it’s been a few years and I’ve had a lot of people between then and now ask me why we decided to adopt and how we made the overwhelming choices once we started the process. So, I’ve updated this first post and will post the other two throughout the week. Also, I never finished the series because I’m an AMAZING starter and not so great finisher. So this will also force me to write Part 4 (mostly for you Nicole).

Part 1….

I have loved almost every second of our adoption experiences and am excited to tell other people why they should consider it. My husband and I have been married for eleven years now and have four kids. Yes, I said four. Just wait – this is the best part – they are all only 4 years apart. You need a nap now? Because I do. The crazy part is that we CHOSE those last two additions. We can’t blame bad birth control so I therefore plead insanity.

But let me explain…

I hated pregnancy. I know that’s SO not politically correct. That I should be thankful to grow these two precious gifts in my womb and wear flowers in my hair and pose for those ridiculous I’m-pregnant-in-a-field-wearing-a-midriff pictures. But that was not me. My pictures would be more like I’m-pregnant-and-puking-out-the-car-window-at-a-stoplight. I didn’t glow, I vomited. I didn’t have natural labors with soothing music and a hot tub, I had an emergency C-section.  But alas, we have two amazing biological kids that I can NOW say were totally worth it. Well, mostly worth it. Anyways, we knew that if we ever got crazy enough to say we wanted more kids that they would come by means of adoption.

How did we know that?

Crazy enough, John and I have known that we wanted to adopt since before we were even married. It honestly felt like a no-brainer to both of us. I know that other people get signs and visions and fireworks, but for us the conversation looked more like this:

Me:  “Would you ever want to adopt?”

John:  “Yep.”

Me:  “Cool.  Stop eating all the cheese dip.”

So… just before Charis (pronounced “Karis”, our second bio kid) turned two, we began the process of researching and learning about what our options were in the adoption world.  After spending just a few hours trying to wade through all of the options and decisions, I had a margarita or 3 and decided to start over after the liquor wore off. Oh. My. Good. God. The choices. Domestic or International? Private or agency? Foster care? Age of child? Race? Hair color? Projected GPA?  You think I’m kidding, but almost all of those are legitimate decisions that you as an adoptive parent not only CAN make, but have to make.

We spent about a month with a giant question mark over our heads.  All we knew is that we wanted to be a family for a kid out in the world that needed one.

Through a very interesting turn of events, we learned that there was an agency in Memphis (where we live) that was having a hard time placing African American infants in families.  This was a GIANT shocker to us.  We just assumed that babies were easy to place.  They’re little and sweet and smell like hope and don’t call you nasty names yet.  But when we started the paperwork for this agency we learned that there were over 25 families waiting for healthy, white infants and ZERO that were approved and waiting for a minority.  Again, it honestly felt like an obvious choice for us.  Charis had just turned two and we were ready for another tiny one (joke’s on us, our first adopted baby, Jones, was a giant baby).

Our process with Bethany (our adoption agency) went very quickly. Especially when they found out that we were open to any race. They worked with us to get our paperwork and homestudy done as fast as possible. (Sidenote: this isn’t normal.) The homestudy process usually requires two or three interviews as well as a visit to your home. After these visits, the social worker takes all of the information and writes a narrative called the “homestudy” that is a crucial piece of the paperwork for domestic and international adoptions. So the timing depends on the number of families the social worker is working with, aligning your schedules for the interviews, how quickly they work and how quickly you gather all of the necessary documents. We started the process with them in September of 2008 and by the end of November, we had a healthy baby boy sleeping in our crib. Joshua Jones Carroll was born on November 23. He was healthy and squeezable and we were able to bring him home from the hospital where he was born…just blocks away from our house.

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But he was a black baby and we’re….well, very white?

Stay tuned for Part 2, where I’ll answer all of your nagging questions like…

  • How did your family react to you guys adoption a black baby?
  • Why did you choose an open adoption?
  • What the hell do you mean you breastfed him?
  • …and more…

What’s important in a church

Recently I’ve had a couple of people express frustration over finding a church. These kind of conversations are usually with younger 20-somethings who distrust hyper-conservative theology, but are still hopeful to connect with people fighting for the right things. I TOTALLY get these frustrations – especially in the South, in can be difficult to find the “right fit”. So here’s where I’ve landed for anyone that cares…

I’ve been in church most of my life. I’ve run the gamut on denominations, styles, methodology, theology, whether or not you could wear jeans or speak in tongues. I’ve been under some great leadership and some not-so-great leadership, worshiped with rock bands and with one dude on a keyboard, gone to a huge campus with multiple buildings and to a church that met in someone’s living room. And at the end of the day, I’ve decided there are only a couple of things really important about the people I choose to partner with in a church.

And it can all be summed up in Micah 6:8

“He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?”

That’s it. That’s what I look for in a church. Are they actively DOING justice in the city? Are they KIND? Does the leadership walk in HUMILITY?  I can look past theological differences, worship styles, how “cool” the pastor is, whether or not they voted for Obama, and if they serve coffee in the lobby if these three things are true about a group of people.

And this is mostly true because I’ve been in churches where these things were NOT the reality. I’ve been in churches that give lip service to justice, but are so inwardly focused that they don’t even know about the brokenness and injustice that surrounds them. I’ve been in churches where the pastor said out of one side of his mouth that we should love people and out of the other side of his mouth that people that didn’t think like him were the enemy. And I’ve been in churches where the leadership was so saturated in pride that they couldn’t admit their own sin.

I’ve totally given up on the idea of finding a group of people that agree with me on every theological, political, or methodological issue (hello, welcome to the rest of your life) and I’ve decided it’s more important to surround my kids with people I want them to BE like. People that love well, fight for justice, and don’t take themselves too seriously in the process. If Jac grows up wanting to defend the defenseless like Josh, if Charis grows up wanting to care for the sick like Meredith, if Abigail grows up fighting for opportunities for those stuck in poverty like Kate, if Jones grows up…well if we get Jones through high school you’ll KNOW it’s because I had a rockstar support group. That will be success.

I know a lot of people that have given up on church entirely. And can you blame them? In a world where a typical American church spends 82 percent of their budget on internal expenses while the American Red Cross spends 8 percent. A world where time and money are precious and the needs around us are so pressing. A world where the leader of the National Association of Evangelicals condemns homosexuals from the pulpit and then pays a man for sex in an alley.

But despite these realities, I still have hope for the church. For a group of people that are willing to give up time, money, comfort, personal ambition – to fight TOGETHER for the right things.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead

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How to be the Kind of Parent Teachers Want to have Around

I’m a huge fan of teachers. HUGE. Have you ever sat in room with 21 seven year olds? For longer than ten minutes? What if someone told you you were responsible for making sure they were all READING in a few months. All of them. Oh, and you also need to make sure they feel safe, loved, believed in, taken care of, creative, known…. TWENTY ONE SEVEN YEAR OLDS.

Twenty one personalities. Twenty one learning styles. Twenty one sets of parents. Twenty one family histories. Twenty one IQs.

Did you know that 91% of teachers buy basic supplies for their classroom with their own money?

That 67% of teachers buy snacks for their students to help with nutritional gaps?

That 1 in 3 teachers purchase clothing items for students like hats, gloves, and shoes?

Put yourself in their shoes for just a second and think about their capacity to give and give and give. I cannot imagine a more important profession in our society – can you? Think back on your own childhood and the teachers that shaped you. I can name a teacher from every single grade that I worshiped and adored. And I have a hard time remembering my own engagement (it’s not personal John) – so clearly these teachers made a HUGE impact on my life and choices.

If any of you follow me on FB or Instagram, you know that I LOVE to encourage teachers. I feel like part of my role as a parent is to be their cheerleader, helper, and supporter. Sure, we’ve had a couple of moments with teachers where I’ve had to step in and advocate for my child, but even in those moments – I give them the benefit of the doubt and aim to work WITH them instead of against them. These people are working their TAILS off and then turning around to spend their paycheck on their students.

Here are a few ideas on how to be the kind of parent a teacher wants to have around:

  • Give them a survey and ask them what their favorites are – that way when it comes time to give them a happy or treat them during teacher appreciation week – you KNOW what they like and aren’t buying generic hand lotions for all of them.

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  • Treat them often! Now that you know their favorites you can tailor their goodies…

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  • Or you can give them all something fun that everyone should love…

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  • Ask them how you can help in their classrooms and then show up…

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      (This teacher needed help pulling out a bajillion workbook pages, collating and folding them all by lesson – how in the world     would she have time to do this AND actually teach these people how to subtract?!)

  • Leave them encouragement in their mailboxes…

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This was just an amazing blog post that I copied and stuffed their boxes with. A lot of times mailboxes are filled with icky things like actual WORK, so this is a fun way to make their day a little brighter.

I know that we all have busy lives – and that not everyone has time to volunteer in their child’s classroom. But I’m almost certain you can help in SOME way. Buy them a ream of paper, send them an encouraging email, back them up when your kid is talking negatively about them. Teachers deserve more than one week in May to be appreciated. Did I mention the TWENTY ONE 7 YEAR OLDS?!

These people are superheroes and saints. I don’t know how they do it.

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Raising Kids in a Ferguson World

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I haven’t posted much about Ferguson because honestly I’m speechless. I just don’t even know what to say about the world I’m raising my children in. A world where an unarmed black man is shot multiple times in cold blood and then has his name slung through the mud in an effort to justify his murder.

I just keep picturing my sweet Jones, laid out dead in the street, his body laid bare for all the world to see for hours and hours. And I wonder…where ARE we? In some uncivilized, barbaric country where we don’t understand that HE WAS A PERSON?! If that was a white boy, in a school uniform, would the police have left him there as people took pictures and videos of him and his brains spewed out on the street? Are we animals that we would treat someone with so much indignity?

I’m afraid. I’m afraid that the justice gap is too insurmountable. I’m afraid that Jones is going to get pulled over for a traffic ticket one day and end up being accosted, in the back of a cop car, or dead. How do I teach my son that he deserves respect while at the same time teaching him how to submit to, what should be a trusted authority figure, in order to save his own life?

Because here’s the thing – Jones loves to play the tough guy. He loves to punch and wrestle and kick and play hard. But really? Jones is a giant teddy bear. He gets his feelings hurt more easily than any of the other kids. He needs to be cuddled several times a day. He still cries when I drop him off at school – big giant tears that make me want to cry, too. And a lot of times he fights because he doesn’t know how to cope with his emotions. He feels backed into a corner and lashes out. But when the dust settles and I pull him aside, he weeps and it’s heartbreaking.

But this side of Jones? This deeply feeling, sensitive side? This side that feels overwhelmed easily by authority? No man with a badge that pulls him over for speeding will ever know about him. And I’m afraid that he will be dehumanized immediately because his skin is darker than theirs.

John and I were talking about how horrified we were last night and he said, “I just keep picturing Jac and Jones stealing a candy bar at a gas station and running out the front door. Jac runs right and Jones runs left. Jac ends up arrested and Jones ends up dead.”

This can’t be America.

I feel paralyzed. I cannot even imagine the suffering of Michael Brown’s family. I want to help, to fight the injustices that work to oppress entire people groups. But the job feels too big. How do we engage a Ferguson world in 2014?

There are a lot of ways to get involved – to speak up for the marginalized. To give financially to organizations actively fighting for minorities to get equal pay, equal opportunities. To make a new friend, one that doesn’t look like you – and actually LISTEN to them.

But at the end of the day – the first step is admitting you have a problem. Let’s call a spade a spade people. We have a deeply seated racial bias in this country. One that’s not going to get better until we each start to recognize the subtle ways that we ourselves profile people based on the color of their skin.

Can I challenge you? The next time you’re in a conversation and someone says something (even unintentional) that sounds even a little like racism – could you speak up? Could you ask that person what they mean? Could you challenge those around you to rise above this kind of pervasive, subtle ignorance? I wonder what would have happened if someone had challenged Darren Wilson in one of these types of conversations. I wonder if he would have thought twice about unloading his gun into an 18 year old boy last Saturday.

I’m afraid and overwhelmed. But as MLK said…

“Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”

Please don’t look other way. For the sake of all of our children.

Why My Kids Go to a Primarily Black School

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Most people know that our kids go to Downtown Elementary, which is a public school here in Memphis that happens to have mostly black students enrolled. This is not an accident.

My journey started when John suggested we submit an application for Jac to go to Perea Preschool, which is a predominantly black preschool that serves mostly those beneath the poverty line. Though we lived in an urban community, I was cautious about sending my tiny white 3 year old to a school where almost no one looked like him. So we visited the school to scope out the situation and I was incredibly impressed by the curriculum, staff, and mission of Perea. It seemed silly to pass up this kind of opportunity to we packed up our preschooler with his tiny unnecessary backpack and gave it a shot.

And here’s what I learned almost immediately – Jac didn’t care. During the first week of school he was talking about a boy in his class named Brandon. I couldn’t place which child this was so I asked Jac to describe him. He said, “you know, the black guy.” This was more than amusing because they were ALL black guys. So the next day, when I went to drop him off I asked the teacher to point out Brandon. Turns out, he was the darkest child in the class – to Jac, black was just one of many colors he saw in his friends. He would later describe Andre as the tan guy, Mario as the brown guy, and Zahnder as the guy with curly brown hair. To him, these were PEOPLE. Not an entire ethnic group.

Fast forward to today – where all four of my kids (the white ones and the brown one and the dark brown one) go to school with mostly black peers. A school where my white kids are learning what it means to be in the minority. A school where my children are around strong, educated, confident educators and leaders of all different colors.  A school where my black children are the majority since they aren’t the majority in our family or our church. A school where I partner with parents that don’t look like me, but want the exact same things for their kids that I do.

Our life is richer and fuller because of Downtown Elementary. My kids are connected to friends from all over the city. The teachers at Downtown are unbelievable. And I hope that my kids are a blessing to their friends and teachers as well.

I’m not there to rescue anybody or be someone’s hero. This is not Dangerous Minds and I’m not Michelle Pfieffer. My kids are there to learn, just like everyone else’s kid. And Downtown is an incredible school – we are blessed to have it as an option.

And here’s the thing… I don’t pass judgment on anyone else’s choice for their kids’ education. The last thing any of us need is to feel guilt about our decisions as parents. We all just want what’s best for our kids. And for the Carroll family, that’s Downtown Elementary.

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