Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Peppered With Joy

Alexei in his orphanage
Tammy and her husband were childless and interested in adoption, but had never really considered the adoption of an older child. She traveled with an early Reverse Lighthouse Project trip to Moscow, where she fell in love with 12-year-old Alexei.  After a rather circuitous adoption process, they welcomed Alexei home in 2011.  In mid-February 2012, Tammy spoke with me, bubbling about life with their new son.

It is important to note that while we are delighted that this has been a very joyous adoption, and we here at the Lighthouse Project always hope, pray, and work toward such positive outcomes, we also recognize that many adoptions of older children will have substantially more difficulties than this family has experienced.

Russian Orphan Lighthouse Project (LH):  How did you and your husband come to adopt an older boy from Russia when you were looking at a younger girl from China?

Tammy: We were scanning the entire world for orphans and their plight, and spending lots of time in prayer. Your blog just happened to be one of our nesting grounds. You posted a kiddo with an “I’m a Pepper” t-shirt on the very same day I was on the edge of attending a Lighthouse Project trip (Peppered With Love, 9/28/09). Not for adoption, of course, as I had no clue where our kiddo would come from!

I went to a women’s conference to drop off CDs. My friend pushed me to stay. Wrestling with this decision to go to Russia or not, I sat in the red velvet church pew, kind of praying and listening, but not all there. I whispered, "Well, God, I will go to Russia, but I am not sure why You would really plan an adoption in the most expensive, unfamiliar, and barely pleasant country.” Remember, I had been to 13 different countries, so in my all-knowing brain I was sure our little seed from heaven would be from one of "those countries." At the moment I finished my half-hearted prayer with a promise, I did the worst thing: I asked for a sign from God for confirmation.  My friend’s little girl tapped me on the shoulder and gave me a can cooler to hang onto. It said, "I’m a Pepper."

Then in Russia I met Alexei. I put gloves on his hands, and he looked at me with those big blue eyes, and I didn't see an older child at all or an orphan, I just saw my son. Age was just a number.

LH: Did you have any fears before your adoption which actually came true?

Alexei meets a friend's baby
Tammy: I worried about him being homesick. It has happened twice since he’s been home.  He’s not inconsolable, but he’ll want us to be close.  He just cries, then gets over it. I worried he’d miss his culture and country, and it has come true. It hasn’t been terrible, but I feared him being sad even once, and he was.
LH: What challenges did you face when you brought Alexei home?

Tammy: The biggest was communication right away at deeper level. I think he would say that, too, being an older child and knowing his language.  Then coming here, and language learning has to start all over again.  Since communication does have to come slowly, it gives time for relationship to build slowly and naturally, so that was good.  But we wanted to comfort him with words, and we just had to hold him, or cook something we thought might comfort him. We really haven’t had other challenges.
LH: Communication is a common concern of pre-adoptive families, but our staff frequently thinks language is lower on the list of challenges, as compared to some of the behavioral issues older kids can come with. Is your thought on communication being your biggest challenge a reflection of the level of difficulty not sharing a language caused, or a reflection on the ease of your overall adoption?
Alexei and his dad
Tammy: From day one he has been easy to comfort.  He does not do a lot of negotiating, just does what he needs to do. At about four months we were able to make jokes and laugh about the same things and understand things together. There were no other challenges that we have had, so I think it’s more a reflection on the ease of our adoption.

LH: How did you handle the language challenge?

Tammy: I prayed a lot, prayed a lot to deal with it.  We tried to learn Russian and tried to use it, so he would understand we were trying. It was really just a challenge because we wanted to know him better, and know him faster. We needed to talk to do that, but we couldn’t do it right away. It wasn’t bad, but you have to be really patient, you have to be creative.  We were playing board games, reading the Bible in two different languages.  If he looked low or sad, we would leave and go on vacation or play a game or make him a different kind of food. When we were on vacation, we didn’t have to struggle to communicate as much because we weren’t on any regimen, just a relaxed and laid-back vacation. We always offered a translator, but Alexei felt more comfortable talking to a girl he knew from the orphanage who had been in America longer. Sometimes he didn’t want to do that, but sometimes having someone talk to him in Russian just put him at ease. He would talk to his Russian grandma on Skype, too. 
LH: How has the transition been compared to what you expected?

Tammy: Much easier. We took all the adoption classes, and took everything with a grain of salt, but realized maybe he’d have behavior problems, or he wouldn’t attach.  Our first two weeks home I woke up every day at 6:30 a.m., went for walk, and prayed about all my fears. When I got home I left my fears at the door, and just went in to love him and be his mom.  The classes and other adoptive families prepared us enough to make us aware of what could happen. Knowing those things, our transition was much easier than we expected.
LH:  What joys have you had?

Tammy: How long have you got?  Everything! Alexei is very affectionate, just hug, hug, pull us in and hug us. That’s the most important thing! And we have this very tall boy wanting to make sure we don’t forget to hug each other. He did not expect anything of us, and never said, “Why don’t I have this?”  He loved us for who we were.  I could see that in how he acted: he makes us cards, writes us messages, he’s willing to be open and honest, he’s not withdrawn. He was open to saying “I love you” the first day he got home, and he physically showed us he loved us from the first day. We didn’t expect that, but we got it! I did not expect his immediate acceptance of us as his parents from an older child; I expected a friendship first, but he loved us as parents. We could see it in his actions, and I loved that.
LH: What advice would you give to other families considering older child adoption?

Alexei with his dad
 Tammy:  I don’t think there is less joy and love just because they’re older; it’s so strong!  I wasn’t there the years when he was little.  But I don’t wish I knew him when he was a baby, because I just feel like he was always mine.  Don’t look at it as “I only have them a few years as compared to a baby.” That’s impossible to measure until they’re in your arms and in your home.  Alexei is no less precious because he’s older. Don’t hold back! Sometimes you expect older kids to act 14 or 15, but they might be emotionally 7 or 8. If he wants to hug in the kitchen for 10 minutes, we let him. We don’t know what he missed, and he might need that. My advice? Expect to fall in love with them! Alexei is just as precious as if we had him when he was three or four.  My friend, an adoptive mom of several older Russian kids, told me to have no expectations. People think you wouldn’t hold your son’s hand when you’re talking to him, but don’t hold back. He values his family! Don’t hold back on loving him and enjoying being his parent.  Just because he’s older does not mean he doesn’t want you to sit in his room and play with him. If he’s this affectionate, why would we hold back?
LH: What has been the most fun you’ve had together?

Tammy: Bedtime!  Every night before bed we read and pray and then start tickling.  Only two nights since we’ve been home has it not happened.  It starts in his room, then moves to ours, then back to his. It’s just a riot, it’s everything, it’s a Hallmark commercial!  Then he’ll ask random questions because he doesn’t want to go to sleep, things like, “Why in English does it say this?”  It’s the most precious time for us, and a lot of fun.
LH:  What has been the hardest thing you’ve overcome so far?

Tammy: A lot of kids say, “In Russia…”   That’s one of the big things we’ve overcome together. It wasn’t a hard thing, but after hearing it 100 times per day…  We had to learn ourselves that we don’t know what it was like in Russia. Now we don’t worry about the “In Russia…” part.  Buildings are bigger there, ice cream is better there. In the transition, you as parents realize you don’t know Russia.  It could break their spirit to act like you don’t believe it, so we had to learn patience with cultural things. We overcame being bothered by it.  We never debated it with him, but we discussed it privately.  An adoptive mom told me when they stop doing it, you’ll miss it.  It was us overcoming it.  At first we were concerned if what he was saying about Russia was true, but then we realized it was more important to support him.  Those statements showed his love for his birth country more than if they were true or not. It was never a negative thing, but it’s just how sentences would start. You should be prepared that kids are going to talk about Russia a lot, and you are going to listen.
LH: Sometimes new adoptive parents do not “feel” like a family right away. Do you feel like a real family yet?

Tammy: Yes!  Absolutely.  I don’t know what it was like before he was here; it feels like he has always been here.  He and my husband do things alike.  I think it’s pretty funny.
LH: How has your extended family accepted Alexei?

Tammy: Overwhelmingly.  We had an interesting Christmas.  Everybody just showered him with affection.  Not just gifts, but time.  They wanted to take him places and show him things.  I almost had to tell them not to forget the other kids.  It was the same thing as a baby, only they could talk to the “baby” and teach him new things.  There was ten times the involvement because they could do things with him. It has been incredible; every single person on both sides has accepted him and fallen in love with him. It’s a miracle.  Everyone adores him. He gets letters every day from cousins and nieces and nephews. I expected it, because every day we tried to get him home, it was everyone’s heart desire.  Everyone is saying, “Wow!  What a wonderful experience! I expected a nephew, but never a nephew like this!”  It’s neat to see they love him more than they even knew that they would.
LH: What have you learned through this adoption?

Tammy: Every day Alexei is translating in his head because of language and cultural differences.  Every day he gets exhausted, and you can see it in his face, but he isn’t going to take a nap because he doesn’t want to let us down. One day he was upset and tired. Finally, he laid in his bed and cried. We went to him and told him, “We love you when you’re angry and when you don’t obey us. We’re doing this because it’s important for you. A good family loves each other and is there for each other. If you could communicate with us and tell us you’re tired…”   Us coming to him when he was upset, rather than just letting him be upset, shocked him. He couldn’t believe we loved him when he was angry. But a good family loves each other and forgives each other. When a child is upset, when you’re nurturing them into this relationship, I don’t think you should let them be upset; you should talk to them and let them know you’ll be there for them if they want to talk.  Bring them back into the family when they don’t know how to reconcile.  They don’t know how to fix a situation, because in their past people just walked away. We didn’t read this, it just happened. We did not want him to think we were staying angry with him, nor did we want him to stay angry with us. 
Also, just be patient, because they ask a lot of questions. Be patient and be available.

LH: What other things have been remarkable?
Tammy:  [The day] he started calling me Mom!  He called us our first names in Russia. Our hostess told him to call us Mom and Dad, but I told him to call me whatever he wanted. I struggled with it, but my husband said it’s just a title, and since he never had a mom, maybe he doesn’t know what it is.  I prayed about it and let it go.  After a few months, I woke him up one morning. I said, “Good morning, Alexei,” and he said, “Good morning, Mom!”  I said, “Mom?!”  He said, “Yeah, you’re my mom.  I love you, Mom.”  I told him he didn’t need to give me anything for Christmas!  When my husband got home, it was the same thing for him.  My husband asked, “Is he calling you Mom?”  And I just smiled and nodded.  It took some time for him to start, but I remember the exact day because it was very special to me, and he knows how much it means to me.  We let it come natural.  If it had never come, I would not have been disappointed, because I loved him like a mom would, and he was a wonderful son.  After about two months I let it go.  He acts like a son and he loves me like a son would, and actions speak so much larger than words.  I don’t think anyone should get hung up on it.

A lot of firsts with older kids you don’t realize you’re going to have, so it’s kind of neat.  Some people think they’re missing out by adopting older, but they’re communicating the things they experience for the first time with you.  You’re sharing it! When you adopt an older child it’s a very rich experience, and a profound experience to watch them heal, and to be a part of it.  Once he made a mess with some glow-in-the-dark powder, then he realized he shouldn’t have made it at his age.  But then he put it on my face and nose and we started laughing.  He started saying, “I’m sorry!” and cleaning all up, but I thought, “What did he ever get to do before this?”  There were things that he didn’t get to experience, and it’s a delight to share them with him.  Zero expectations.
They’ll surprise you with their joy! 
Thank you, Tammy, for sharing a bit of your joy with us!  All of us at the Lighthouse Project are thrilled for the three of you, and we wish you continued blessings as you continue to grow closer together in the coming months and years.