On the second anniversary of our daughter’s homecoming which also happens to be my birthday, I find myself reflecting back. I remember having so many concerns. I worried about bonding with our new daughter and her successful integration into our family. I also worried about the travel, remembering not to drink the water, and the vaccinations. I worried about taking care of an infant who would be a stranger to me and I to her for the first few weeks. I worried about how my boys, then seven and eleven, would adjust to a new baby in the house with their settled routines and comfortable roles. I worried about my husband adjusting to new fatherhood as he approached his 50th birthday. I worried about her health, potential developmental delays and special needs given her start in life. I worried whether as a family we were prepared to deal with what was to come. I am not much of a worrier so all worrying was very unsettling
I probably worried most about whether I would have the same bond with our newest child as I had with my two boys. Would I intuitively understand her like I felt I did with my boys? Would I understand what she needed during this phase when she couldn't ask? Would I understand the "why" of her actions like I often did with the boys? Would I be able to provide the nurturing safety net that I strove to with other children? Would she feel the intense connection to me I desperately hoped she would? I felt a heightened responsibility as the mother. Those early months and years would set the stage for her in life. All these concerns weighed on me as we traveled half away around the world to Ethiopia to meet our daughter two years ago.
I remember waiting in our Addis Abba hotel to be picked up by the van that would take us to WACAP house where we would meet Leyla for the first time. I emailed friends and family nervously as we passed the time. African time, as we had been warned, was between 30 minutes to an hour later than the appointed time. We were ready just in case this was the rare occasion they would be on time (which incidentally it was not). My heart pounded as we rode in the van. A typical view of what we saw out the window as we drove along is shown above. We made small talk with the another family who was also meeting their daughter for the first time. Part of me wanted to withdraw into my head with my thoughts. The drive reminded me of starting labor in that it was both exciting, frightening and inevitable – within and outside your control.
The van pulled up to a gate which seemed to open unnaturally slowly as we waited. We drove into a concrete courtyard where some older children were playing with a soccer ball. We could see the rooms where the children slept bordering the open area. Everything was clean but minimalist. The staff led us to the main room which was set up for a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Reeds were strewn on the floor. Coffee beans were roasting and filled the air with a wonderful aroma. I truly felt exported to a different, exotic and wonderful world. But thoughts of meeting our daughter still dominated. An eternity passed before the nurses walked in with three baby girls.
I instantly recognized Leyla’s beautiful, sweet face from the pictures. She was a petite girl with surprising thick, bare thighs poking out of her dress. Her eyes were, and still are, her most striking feature. They are a liquid inky black and pierce through you. On our first meeting, they took in everything. She didn’t appear afraid but rather curious in a very focused manner. Holding her was heaven, just drinking in her baby smell, feeling her silky smooth skin and running my fingers through her soft black curls. The backside of her head was rather bald because she slept on her back and rubbed it the nurses told us. I did the same as a baby – interestingly. We postulated that the staff often put her in hats to cover it. I loved every inch of her, even her bald spot. Below is a picture from Ethiopia with Leyla in one of those hats. I see more looking at it again. Now, I know the look on Leyla's face is a wary one. She raises her eyebrows just a bit and her mouth is not as relaxed when she is unsure of what is happening.
We visited her each day. She came to us easily although she had a clear bond with one of her nurses. It was wonderful to see that bond but also bittersweet because it was one that could not be sustained as she moved into her new life with us. On the day before we traveled, we were allowed to take her back to the hotel with us. Our long trip home (33 hours in total) was noteworthy in that it was generally uneventful. Leyla was a "spitter" but smelling a bit like milk most of the time seemed a minor inconvenience. Leyla's big eyes took everything in - she seemed to want to look directly into the eyes of each person who entered her line of sight. I noticed on our flights she would study someone until they made eye contact. She would hold it briefly and then, as if satisfied with the connection, move her gaze to the next person. It gave me a sense of the deep person she is inside although she was a mere 6 months at the time.
I recall during the early days home feeling a sense of being slightly overwhelmed by all the changes that come with having an infant in the house. It brought back memories of when my boys first came home from the hospital although then I also had to deal with the physical recovery and fun hormones. This time, I instead had the unfamiliar weight of the worry about bonding – her bonding to me, her bonding to her brothers and they to her, bonding with her dad. I felt inadequate in a more extreme way than I did with my boys because I did not know what soothed her. I didn’t know what would make the transition better for her. I found my confidence in my image of myself as a mother was a bit shaken. This was new territory and I needed to learn a new set of skills and approaches. My third child entered our lives in a fashion where the connection was not already formed as it is through pregnancy and early infancy. It was hard to fathom but I didn’t know my child then although I loved her with all my heart.
Now reflecting back, I find it challenging to bring those feelings back to life. Leyla has done so much to make herself not only an integral part of our family unit but also the hub of joy and activity. I have a much younger sister and I recall a similar experience when she was a little girl. Everyone wakes up and asks, "Where's Leyla?" Beginning the day with her is guaranteed to start it with a smile, a hug or a laugh and often some combination. I previously blogged about the boys bonding with their little sister and it is a source of much happiness to me. Two years later and they still regularly comment on how much they love their little sister and how glad they are she joined our family. My husband is similarly smitten and she dotes on him.
Maybe it’s because I am in my middle life and am more reflective, or maybe it is because of the doubts I originally had, I find a vivid delight in the small moments with Leyla. My heart leaps every time she adds “My” before “Mama” and says it in her most definitive tone, “MY MAMA!!” I feel amazing when she violates my personal space as she snuggles with me in bed, making sure she has a body part of hers overlapping one of mine. Often that includes pressing her face against mine and saying, “You awake, mommy?? I awake!” The cares of the moment disappear when I pick her up from pre-school and she runs to me yelling, “Mo-o–mommy!” and wants to be scooped up. In the middle of the night, if she wakes up and calls out, “I want my mommy.” - I feel wonderful and happily settle her back down to sleep. She has a habit of gratuitously lavishing me with “huggies” and “kisses” and says “I lub you SO MUCH!” which makes me wonder what I did to deserve such bliss. Leyla imitates me in a way that makes me laugh at myself as well as her. She wags her finger at her brothers when they bother her and says, “I NOT happy wit’ you!!” I know where she heard that before. She also enjoys teasing (you can see an example in the last picture).
However, I feel a lurch in my stomach when she will on occasion innocently ask me, “Are you my mommy?” I always answer, “Of course, I am your mommy.” I know one day the question and answer likely will not be so easy and direct. For now, I cherish the simplicity of the love we share. Hopefully, it will set a good foundation to help us weather whatever lies ahead. I have so many wonderful mommy/daughter memories from our first two years together. You can see some of my favorites below.
On my birthday which now has so much more significance, I couldn’t ask for a better gift than being loved fully and deeply by my youngest child (and my terrific husband and two amazing sons). Leyla, we all love you so much and can’t imagine our lives without you. You have brought us so much happiness, learning and laughter.
Many things I took for granted before we adopted our our daughter took on new or different meaning to me. I know I cannot fulfill all my daughter's needs when it comes to connecting with her culture or understanding her path to our family. I find myself looking to put things in place that will help her during the times she will need to seek help and guidance elsewhere. I don't know what it is to be Ethiopian. I don't know what it is to be adopted. I don't know what it is to be birthed in one continent and raised in another. As a mom, I want to be all things to my daughter - to be her guide on her journey. But I know I will fall short and so I plan.
I realize, as I reflect, I will fall short in that capacity for my sons too. But I honestly had not given that much thought before Leyla arrived. I know as boys there are parts of their journey that their father and the other men in their lives will need to take a leading role. But those differences are the norm in families. Perhaps that is why I felt more comfortable believing what my sons needed would naturally be there for them. However, I am less sure about that too as I watch my eldest enter his teens. The world I knew growing up as teen no longer exists and he will face challenges I didn't.
When we went to Ethiopia to bring home our daughter, we traveled with two other families who were also meeting their daughters for the first time. Both families had connections to where we live. Interestly, both mothers had grown up in the area although their families now live elsewhere. We discussed keeping the girls connected as much as we could. Each year since, we were able to get together with one of those families. They have a biological daughter Hazel (who accompanied her parents to Ethiopia) and their Ethiopian daughter Naima. Naima is about 6 months older than Leyla.
When we met our daughters, that age gap seems quite large. Leyla was a tiny 6 month old and Naima was a tall slim one year old, walking and starting to talk. I included some photos of the girls from that time in Ethiopia below. The first summer visit together the age difference had diminished but still was evident. Leyla was a few months past her first birthday and just mastering walking. Naima was closer to two and happily running and talking up a storm to her sister. Our boys really enjoyed meeting Naima and Hazel because it allowed them to connect to their sister's time in Ethiopia before she joined them. Dimitri went out of his way to form a connection with Naima who was a bit shy when we first arrived.
This last summer, the age difference was barely evident. And they started to notice each other in a different way. Naima said to her mother, "Leyla has curly hair like me." It struck me this potentially was the beginning of a deeper connection. Only Leyla's brother Dimitri came a long on the visit (Damian had a soccer game and was disappointed he couldn't join us). Dimitri at thirteen was a hit with the four girls. He is wonderful with kids and pretty much will let them do anything so they have fun. And the girls took full advantage. The pictures are evidence of that.. Since that visit, Leyla asks me with some frequency to see the pictures we took. She will ask me "Can I see my friend Naima." She doesn't seem to tire of looking at the pictures of the fun times they shared. Something clicked with her and made an impression. I hope it is the beginning of a something she will be able to nurture and grow. Naima has a unique shared experience with Leyla. And it may be able to provide some of the answers or support they will both need as they grow beyond childhood and examine their history as well as their path forward.
Like Leyla, I enjoy looking at these pictures because of the joy that exudes from them but also because I want Leyla to have all that she needs for her path - especially what I know I cannot provide. And these pictures make me hopeful . . .
September 11th never meant anything to me before 2001. I recall vivid details of that day and the days that followed. Small details became etched in my brain because of the horror of the day - like who I met with immediately before seeing the television screen with the burning towers. I have a hard time remembering meetings from last week much less nine years ago. I recall the eery strangeness that came over me when I looked in the sky above our house where planes regularly circled when they couldn't immediately land at nearby O-Hare airport in Chicago and saw nothing but blue for days. My youngest son was 7 months and I wondered what kind of world would he grow up into. My sense of security was ripped away and in its place was a raw appreciation of how fragile and illusory that sense was.
In 2008, I gained a new meaning for September 11. September 11 is the Ethiopian New Year. Around this time of year, we received the referral of our daughter and an introduction into her Ethiopian culture. The Ethiopian calendar (Amharic: የኢትዮጵያ ዘመን አቆጣጠር yä'Ityoṗṗya zämän aḳoṭaṭär), is based on the older Alexandrian or Coptic calendar, which derives from the Egyptian. But like the Julian calendar, it adds a leap day every four years. Like the Coptic calendar, the Ethiopian calendar has twelve months of 30 days each plus five or six epagomenal days, which comprise a thirteenth month. The sixth epagomenal day is added every four years without exception on August 29 of the Julian calendar, six months before the Julian leap day. Thus the first day of the Ethiopian year, 1 Mäskäräm, for years between 1901 and 2099 (inclusive), is usually September 11 (Gregorian), but falls on September 12 in years before the Gregorian leap year. The year 2003 begins today September 11 in this calendar.
I looked for pictures to show the joy and celebration that my daughter might be experiencing in her native land today. I was surprised to find pictures of little girls that looks strangely familiar although I had not seen them before. I looked back at picture from Leyla's second birthday and saw her yellow dress that mirrored the yellow flowers decorating the young celebrants in Ethiopia. How appropriately similar they looked including the life and fire that shines out of their eyes. Now both meanings I have come to know for this momentous day intertwine as I reflect. I celebrate the amazing culture that was not mine until my daughter made it so. I also remember the inhumanity and humanity that is exposed in tragedies driven by hate and misunderstanding. I see a connection in the sharing of cultures which leads to greater appreciation of both uniqueness and sameness. A part of me wishes for a way to replicate what happened in our family on a massive scale although I know hearts change on an individual level. Our family now reflects 4 cultures - Dutch, Greek, Ethiopian and American - and our hearts are open to appreciating and learning about the many others that make up the mosaic of our globe.
I recently saw this lovely poem (by Fleur Conkling Heyliger) shared by a proud adoptive mother:
"Not flesh of my flesh
Nor bone of my bone,
But still miraculously
Never forget for a single minute
You didn’t grow under my heart,
But in it."
This sums up beautifully what I am sure many adoptive parents feel. It certainly captures our experience. To bring your child, who was destined to be a part of your family, from the other side of the globe, makes you believe in things bigger than yourself like miracles, destiny and more . .
These feelings did stop at my husband or me, they extended to our sons. The youngest recently told me as we were walking alone together, "I love her (his adopted sister) so much it fills my whole heart. It's a wonder there is room for the rest of you. But somehow there is." I gave him a big hug. I understood exactly what he meant. I watch each morning as Leyla gets up and runs to find "the boys." They each bend down so she can wrap her little arms tightly around their necks and give them good morning kisses. The look of joy and peace on their faces as she does this ritual warms you to your soul - it is so pure and real!
Both brothers have their own unique relationship with their sister. The youngest loves to goof around with her and find ways to make her erupt in peals of laughter. Her laughter is quite infectious. We find it is nearly impossible not to laugh along with her once she gets going. My eldest has a more nurturing relationship with his sister in part because he is eleven years older. She will cry for him if she is hurt and a parent is not close on hand. Below are some favorite pictures of my boys with their cherished little sis. The love they have for each other, grown in their hearts, is a special joy for a parent to witness.
There are certain questions I get with some frequency since we adopted our daughter. One of those is “Why Ethiopia?” I was recently asked this question again from a prospective adoptive parent on Adoptive Families website. Excerpts from the email I received are below:
“I just wanted to tell you that I have been really inspired reading your blog. . . . When we first began researching adoption (about a year ago), we talked about Ethiopia, but were both so afraid of the unknowns and decided it was not for us; however, I have always felt that it was where we should be. . . .. . Your beautiful story has inspired me and concreted the idea in my mind that we are being called to that country. How did you decide it was right for you?"
The truth is we didn’t originally start thinking about Ethiopia. A number of our friends adopted children from China and a few from Romania and Russia. We wanted to add a little girl to our family since we had two sons. After that our biggest concern was the health of our new child. We were open to a slightly older kid, up to two years of age, given our boys were 6 and 10 at the time we started the process. We began looking into adoption with the thought that China likely was the path for us. We assembled the massive amounts of paperwork and even prepared ourselves for the long wait that was anticipated with China. At the first informational meeting, we saw a family from my son’s elementary school. They were considering Ethiopia. I found it very interesting since I did not know anyone who had adopted from Ethiopia. I did remember learning about Ethiopia from early Bible classes and school. I was intriqued but did not give it much more thought.
We moved forward with China without considering Ethiopian at that point. I remember vividly when I received an email from our adoption agency while we were visiting my husband’s family in Greece that summer. I was sitting under an umbrella being the one in the family most likely to turn an angry shade of red under the hot Mediterranean sun. I feel a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as I read the message . . another family where one parent had a similar health history as mine had their paperwork rejected by China. We were just getting ready to submit our paperwork. The agency strongly recommended that we consider another program since we would likely be rejected as well. I had not considered, much less prepared myself, for this possibility. I felt the tears sting in my eyes as my husband gently asked me “What’s wrong?”
I believed in my heart that there was a third girl child we were supposed to adopt waiting out there for us. As I let the bitter disappointment go over a period of weeks, I realized she was not in China. And I needed to explore other possibilities. When we returned to the states, I reviewed other countrie's programs and decided to look closely into the Vietnam, Russia and Ethiopia. I interviewed with the leaders of each program at our agency. We decided on move forward on parallel paths with Ethiopia and Vietnam given that Vietnam had many question marks and Ethiopia was still a pioneer program for our agency. We started our Ethiopian paperwork and then never did much with Vietnam. The more I learned about Ethiopia generally and through our process, the more peace I had with our decision.
As we explained this change in plans to our boys, my eldest said with complete candor something I could not even say to myself, “They won’t give you a baby because they think you are going to die.” Wow – that one hit me right at the very core of my being. I knew he was right but hearing it out loud was another thing altogether. Somehow, hearing him say it with the tone of total indignation at the injustice of it was a small comfort. Having your children want to protect and defend you is a special thing indeed – although it felt bittersweet given the circumstances.
Ethiopia has a long and rich history as one of the ancient countries. We found many similarities to my husband’s Greek culture: the climate, the traditions, the food and the focus on family and community. When we traveled to Ethiopia, we felt welcomed and very much at home. The foliage and vegetation reminded us both of my husband’s homeland. Here is a picture of our time in Ethiopia getting to know our new daughter.
I believe you receive the children you are meant to have no matter how they come to join your family. Our daughter is no exception. She is so completely one of us while also being completely Ethiopian and uniquely her own person. What seemed like a devastating piece of news at the time put us on a path to amazing joy. As my eldest son will guilelessly say (and does so with almost annoying frequency), “I am so glad China did not work out otherwise we would not have gotten Leyla.”
I saw this recent quote which spoke to me: "When you learn something from people, or from a culture, you accept it as a gift, and it is your lifelong commitment to preserve it and build on it."--Yo-Yo Ma, American cellist
I feel this applies exponentially when you accept the gift of a child from another people and culture. My youngest son asked me, “Are we Ethiopian now?” I answered, “No one will look at you and see Ethiopian but you are Ethiopian inside if you accept that connection to your sister’s homeland.” He said, “Good.” He doesn’t give me as much insight into what happens inside his head but clearly he viewed being able to connect with his sister’s country as a positive.
The answer to “Why Ethiopia?” is simple: because that is where our daughter was waiting for us. And we accept the lifelong responsibility to honor the gift we have gotten by way of Eastern Africa. Here is a picture of the family recently celebrating Leyla's second birthday at a local Ethiopian restaurant.
Choosing a name for your child is usually a momentous and often challenging task. When you adopt a child you add a few additional dimensions. These dimensions increase further if your child is from another country and culture. When we choose our eldest son's name, we chose a name we both loved. Some of our original criteria were: 1) the name needed to be of a saint so my son could celebrate his nameday (a Greek tradition to celebrate rather than birthday), 2) the name should be unique but not strange, and 3) the name could not have an easy nickname. (Incidently, my husband has made the most of being a Greek in American and is the only one in the family who celebrates both his birthday and nameday.) We had to work through some cultural issues with my husband's family since Greeks generally name the first born son after the father's father. My father in law's name is Orestes which didn't seem quite right for a child who would be American by birth and Dutch and Greek by lineage. Also, in mythology Orestes kills his mother - not a plus from my perspective.
We chose Dimitri from Demeter, the goddess of nature and the earth. We gave him Orestes as a middle names which led to him having the rather unfortunate initials of DOA which he now embraces as a teenager. One of my best friends who lives in Holland called me when I was pregnant and told me she had the perfect name for me, Dimitri. I laughed and told her we already chose that very name but it gave me confidence we had chosen well. Dimitri is also the patron saint of my husband's hometown of Thessaloni and the name of his godfather's father. All convinced me Dimitri was the name of destiny for our first born pictured below communing with nature after he was told not to since he was recovering from a severely broken arm but apparently the call was too strong to resist.
With our second son, the name did not come as easily although the criteria was generally same except we decided we wanted another name that started with a "d". We settled on Damian Michael (his dad's name). You will see a theme with the middle names; they are all connected to my husband's family. No "drama" on the Greek side for this name since the second son "was supposed" to be named after my father. My folks, who are Dutch, have similar naming traditions (I am named after my pateral grandmother but ironically look like my materal grandmother's side of the family - go figure) but they did not express any opinion on how we named our children. Damian means to tame. And if you met him, you would not think "tame." He has boundless energy and curiosity and often combines the two. We feel like the ones being tamed in most instances. Below is a picture of the tamer dancing to the beat of his own drum - literally.
With our daughter Leyla, it was a family affair. We received her referral picture and had the advantage of seeing what she looked like before we named her. Our criteria varied a bit this time. My husband Michael wanted something that meant "a gift from god." Her birthmother gave her the name Fasika which means Easter and we wanted her to retain that gift. My husband also wanted to name her after his mother Maria. We all wanted an Amharic name to honor her Ethiopian heritage. The boys wanted a name that fit a princess which we all felt she looked like in that first photo. We faced a few challenges with the nameday but use her middle name for Greek holiday purposes. We worked through many possibilities before settling on a three name combination. Adding two opinionated brothers definitely lengthed the vetting process.
Although Dimitri and Damian's favorites didn't make the final cut, both threw themselves into the process and enjoyed learning more about the meaning of different names. We chose Leyla which means "dark haired beauty", Marie for Michael's mother (and a saint) and Fasika for her birthmother. We learned later that Leyla can also mean "change" which is fitting for many different reasons. We call her every combination from using all three, to Leyla Marie or Fasikie, or just Marie. She beams at all but has a hard time herself with saying Fasika. She often refers to herself in the third person as "is Leyla" or "Leyla did it," the later usually when she had done something she shouldn't. Here is a picture of our dark haired beauty from her early months home.
It is interesting to note the Greek connection to the naming of Leyla's homeland. The name "Ethiopia" derives from the Greek ethio, meaning "burned" and pia, meaning "face": the land of burned-faced peoples. Aeschylus described Ethiopia as a "land far off, a nation of black men." Homer depicted Ethiopians as pious and favored by the gods. In Ethiopia's naming tradition, the children take their father's first name as their last name. The first name is usually given by their parents and is significant in meaning to them. On Leyla's visa back to the states as well as her Ethiopian passport, her name was listed as Fasika Michael. My husband Michael enjoyed that quite a bit.
This custom is used to make it easier to identify family groups. Our family group shares a last name, an adverturous spirit while each is a unique and quirky individual. A family friend who had not seen Leyla for bit recently ran into the five of us at one of the boy's many soccer games. She commented as she watched Leyla run, play and laugh out loud as she amused herself (see below), "She is such an Angelidis!!" Well said.
We were recently invited to come to answer questions about our experience for a group of prospective adoptive parents. The agency provides a list of likely questions which reminded me of all the ones we had when we were going through the process. As we sat with the five of us in front of the group, there was an awkward silence. .where to start. The facilitator asked us, “Did your daughter have any issues when you first brought her home.” As I was responding that our daughter did indeed have a common Ethiopia digestive issue, Leyla, who was sitting on my lap studying those studying her, passed gas very loudly. Her facial expression never changed. I paused and then added, she still has the occasional digestive issue and the room laughed. Leyla then proceeded to show off her lovely belly by lifting her dress and then moving to stick her hands inside her cute little matching bloomers. My thirteen year old son sitting next to me looked a bit mortified but it definitely lightened the mood.
The parents asked a number of great questions. Then one gentleman asked a series of questions that were a bit unexpected given the fact that our three kids – the two oldest - 9 and 13, were in the room and listening to what was said. He asked, “Do you love your biological and adoptive children the same? Do you pay more attention to the adoptive child? Do your other children get jealous or resent that?” He continue on in that vein for a while. It was interesting to watch many of the other parents squirm uncomfortably in their seats or even seem to tilt their bodies away from this man as if to distance themselves from his questions. I also felt my son sitting next to me sit up a little straighter. I knew he was listening very intently.
When the gentlemen finished, my husband responded with a laugh, “Oh I can answer for me and it’s an easy answer. I love her more and I have already told my sons that!” Half the room laughed and the other looked slightly horrified. My husband is from Greece and is not shy to speak his mind or make a joke. As I explained to this room, in the Greek culture or at least in my husband’s family, I have observed that there was a little truth in what he said but it had nothing to do with adoptive versus biological. In my husband’s family, his sister is his father’s favorite and my husband is his mother’s. And they freely joke about it.
These questions are difficult ones but go to the heart of what makes a family through adoption or biology. I mentioned I read a blog that tried to describe the love you feel if you have both biological and adoptive children. This woman had one of each and said her love for them was both the same and yet different. I agree with that assessment although since I have two biological, I will add it is the same but different for each child. One difference with your adoptive child is you want to make up for what wasn’t right in their past even though at an intellectual level you know that is not possible. But the love you have for them still includes that fierce desire.
I also spoke to the the attention question. My youngest son, who was our baby before his sister came, did mention early on when she was home, “She gets all the good attention and I get the bad.” We talked to him about it then and explained that she was a baby and he had gotten that same type of attention when he was a baby. It didn’t come up again so I asked him some months later if he still felt that way. He looked at me like it was a particularly dumb question as only your kids can, “Oh no, mom,” he said. “I may get a little less attention from you and dad. But I get A LOT of attention from Leyla so it is all good.” His little sister adores him and finds just about anything he does hysterically funny. They share a special bond that includes lots of laughter.
As I am speaking, this son has sat down on the other side of me and is poking me – increasingly harder as I try to ignore him. Finally, I say to the parents, “And as you can see, my kids know how to get attention." As I turned to him and asked him what he wanted to share, I waited with trepidation. This son can say the craziest things and they are not always appropriate for the situation. He started, “I was reading a book about a mother who had a biology –ical and adopted kid. She said that she loved them both the same amount but that the love was different for each of them so I agree with my mom.” Wow – I was humbled and proud. I don’t always know what goes on in his head but he had clearly been thinking about this at some point and found his answer through that book.
As we were driving home, my husband and I talked about what a great experience this had been to go back to talk to parents like us. We were reminded of how terrific our boys have been through this whole process and how much choosing this path has made our family learn and grow in beautiful but sometimes unexpected ways. We also felt we were in a small way paying it forward since our experience has been so amazingly positive.
As a mom, I often look at my children and wonder what they will look like or what they will be like when they grow up. With my biological sons, I look at relatives from my family and my husband’s as sources for part of the answer. Will my son share my dad’s quirky nature? Will my son be fun loving and adventurous like my husband’s favorite cousin? Or will he be a photographer like my favorite cousin? Or more likely which combination of characteristics will they exhibit from an number of people? As they grow and mature, I see different characteristics and tendencies. Their interests, hopes and dreams evolve over time too.
With my daughter who is from Ethiopia (pictured above looking every bit the princess she is in our house), I still see our family in her. .even though she has different biology. I see her younger brother’s love of food, music and dance. I see her older brother’s fascination with the animal kingdom and his sweet caregiver tendencies. I also realize that I can’t know some of the possibilities for her since I don’t know her biological family. To fill in those gaps, I found myself looking at picture of Ethiopians in the news or in my day to day life for potential clues. Occasionally, I see a face or a gesture from one of them that remind me of Leyla. When Leyla was recently home, I saw a lovely model gracing the pages of a magazine I was reading. I thought maybe Leyla will grow up and look something like her. They had a similar bone structure. As I read the article, I was pleased to learn that this model was Ethiopian.
Her name is Liya Kebede and she has an inspiring story. She used her celebrity and wealth to reach back and help those less fortunate in her country in a variety of ways. Liya was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She has commented that the modeling industry in Ethiopia is quite different. For example, in Ethiopia she had to provide her own shoes for a runway show. In 2003, she became the face of Estée Lauder cosmetics, the first Ethiopian in the company's history. Liya is one of a handful of African models featured in major magazines and fashion shows.
In 2005, Kebede was appointed as WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health. During her acceptance speech for the 2005 UN Day Award, she called out the need for focus on women and children’s issues:
"Every day we hear about the dangers of cancer, heart disease and AIDS. But how many of us realize that, in much of the world, the act of giving life to a child is still the biggest killer of women of child-bearing age? That over half a million die every year? Or that 3 million babies are stillborn? Or that another 4 million die during the first days and weeks of life?"
In 2009, Liya starred in the film-adaption of the bestselling autobiography Desert Flower by former supermodel Waris Dirie. The film recounts Waris's childhood in Somalia, her rise to stardom and subsequent awareness campaign against female circumcision. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival and received a standing ovation.
She founded the Liya Kebede Foundation, whose mission is to reduce maternal, newborn and child mortality in Ethiopia and around the world. Her Foundation funds awareness raising projects as well as provides direct support for low-cost technologies, community-based education, and training and medical programs. In 2009, Liya worked with the Gates Foundation as part of their Living Proof Project. Liya served as a High-Level adviser for the Center for Global Development’s 2009 report "Start with a Girl: A New Agenda for Global Health." She writes for the Huffington Post about maternal and child health. She is part of the Champions for an HIV Free Generation, an organization led by former Botswana President Festus Mogae which advocate for increased HIV prevention and treatment in Africa.
In 2008, Liya also launched Lemlem, a clothing line to help preserve the art of traditional weaving and bring sustainable economic development to Ethiopia. Lemlem, which means “to bloom” in Amharic, features hand-spun, woven and embroidered women and children’s clothing.
For each of my children, I hope they take the best of their biology and their environment to develop themselves into a caring, multi dimensional people that leave the world a little better place than they found it. In Liya Kebede (and Waris Dirie), I see that kind of person. I look forward to the unique journey that each of my children will take. I realize Leyla’s journey will be similar in many ways to her brothers but also include more unknowns for her and me. I hope she will find people to inspire her as she develops into her best self. I can already tell her that she inspires people with her shiny deep black eyes that seek out eye contact and hold it and with her laugh that makes you just want to laugh with her. In addition to my hope for my children that they find people to inspire them, I also hope they will become people who inspire others.
I found a paperweight over the weekend with a great Maya Angelou quote that I intend to give Leyla when she is older:
“Dream. Let nothing dim the light that shines from within.” It’s that light that inspires others, in my humble opinion, and I see it shining in each of my children.
I found out recently that representatives from my adoption agency were going back to Ethiopia for a visit with the staff there. I asked if I could include a letter and some pictures of Leyla and our family. As I sat down to write the letter, I thought about what words could I use that could adequately describe how this amazing man half way around the world changed our lives. The pictures below show Ato (which means "Mr" in amharic) Teklu and one of the caregivers with us and Leyla in Ethiopia as well as the WACAP house where Leyla stayed before we brought her home.
Ato Teklu is an angel to us. He is an Ethiopian child advocate lawyer (I have mentioned in previous posts) who works with our agency in Ethiopia. Although he is small of stature, he is an imposing figure in how he carries himself and responds to the needs of his country's children. He is clearly proud of the long and storied Ethiopian history and wants to make sure the children who don’t grow up in Ethiopia get the chances to learn and appreciate it in their new homes. This is his life's calling and it is an inspiration to us and I know many others.
I was not able to put all the emotion, gratitude and admiration we feel for Ato Teklu in the letter because words are inadequate. But here is my effort (including some of the pictures we shared). I hope it inspires you in some small way or reminds you to be thankful for the angels who have come into your life at one time or another.
January 27, 2010
Dear Ato Teklu,
Greetings to you. Leyla continues to grow and bless our lives. We are grateful every day for the wonderful work you and the staff at WACAP house do on behalf of Ethiopian children. We are also trying to honor the gift we have been given by supporting the work you do there as well as raising awareness about the amazing beauty of the Ethiopian country, people and culture as well as the tremendous need of your country.
Leyla is talking a lot, loves music and dancing. She is an adventurous eater who eats all sorts of different types of foods although she has shown a special affinity for Ethiopian food. She is a very funny little girl now. She works to make people laugh and has a wonderful, infectious belly laugh. She enjoys wearing other family member’s shoes and stumbling around. She also follows her brothers wherever they go. She wants to be included and tries to do what they do like playing soccer and basketball. They adore her and will basically do anything for her.
Leyla is beloved in our family and our community. Our families have embraced Leyla into their hearts. She is the only granddaughter on both sides and has a special place within our extended family. She has four adoring grandparents, four loving aunts and one uncle. She also has a wonderful family friend as her godmother. She was baptized in Greece outside of Michael’s hometown this summer. She joined us on a cruise of the Baltics visiting Berlin and Saint Petersburg among other places along the Baltic Sea. Leyla is becoming a world traveler at an early age having already visited 3 continents and about 12 countries. Everywhere we go people comment on how beautiful and happy she is. She spreads much joy just by being herself.
Our house has gained some wonderful Ethiopian artwork including carvings, paintings and needlework since Leyla's arrival. Our lives have also become richer in so many ways when she joined our family. Our family is now a Greek, Dutch, Ethiopian and American one. And we are proud to have such a rich set of traditions to combine into our own.
We hope to come as a family next year to Ethiopia. We would like to visit you and the WACAP house. We would also like to visit Leyla’s birthplace in Bahir Dar. We would like our boys, Dimitri, 12, and Damian, 8, to get the opportunity to get to see their sister’s birth country and learn more about its history and culture first hand.
We look forward to continuing to support your efforts. All the best to you, your family and the staff at WACAP. You remain in our thoughts and our prayers.
I was uploading some picture to a wonderful site called AdoptiveFamiliesCircle. Their link is on the side of my blog. This is a favorite photo of mine from our first Christmas as a family of five which brings back wonderful memories for me. It was so great to have Leyla finally home with us. For those who have been through the adoption process, you know the unknown and the waiting are the hardest. I recall how much I enjoyed looking at pictures on this site and on blogs of people who were strangers to me at the time and likely to remain that way when we were waiting for our referral. It made me think of the other strangers who had inspired and encouraged me on this journey.
I recall one day when our adoption agency, WACAP, had a get together of parents waiting for their children from Ethiopia as well as parents who had already brought their children home. When we went through our adoption, the Ethiopia program was still in the “pioneer” stage for our agency so there were many more unknowns. At that meeting, three families who had brought their children home particularly encouraged, moved and inspired me. You see the pictures of these families from WACAP’s site below. The first two had brought home little girls about the same age as we expected to get. Looking at these beautiful children and the clear bond they already had with their families after a relatively short time home was such an amazing sight. Sharing that with those waiting and those wondering if this was calling them was an amazing gift. I felt much less anxious and concerned about the process ahead of us after that meeting.
The third family was a single mom and two older children. She had already adopted 2 children from India who were grown and had won an auction trip to Ethiopia. Through that trip, she came to the conclusion that she was supposed to adopt additional older children from Ethiopia – these children are much less likely to be adopted. Her full story is in one of the publications on the WACAP website. At this get together, she talked of her children’s birthmother whom she had the privilege of meeting while she was there. She had tears in her eyes as she spoke. Her voice was low and soft so her children did not hear details that might pain them. Choices like their birthmother had to make are unimaginable to most of us. The choice this adoptive mother made is also one that most with grown children could not imagine. I was very uplifted and humbled by the gift of sharing her journey this mother freely gave with the people in the room.
When I think about what I can do to make a difference, I often overlook the chance to encourage or inspire someone you don’t even know. As I upload pictures to the AdoptiveFamiliesCircle or to WACAP's website, I hope that our story and pictures might uplift some mother waiting to meet her child, might provide guidance to a father that isn’t sure if adoption is the right path for his family, might reassure some brother who is wondering what it is like to have a little sister who doesn’t look like him, and finally might comfort a birthmother who is wondering if her child is living the life she hoped for her child when she gave them up. And I close by sharing one more favorite photo of our little Seahawks fan at 9 months old - hope it at least makes you smile.
Seattle is quite grey this time of year. Many folks go to sunny warm places to escape it. Looking through family pictures, I found these shots taken of Leyla at one of her brother’s soccer games during a much brighter season. She reminds me of liquid sunshine. She is so naturally joyful. And she brings such joy to those around her. Leyla has changed much since she came home last year. She is talking up a storm and is more little girl than baby. The photos are a wonderful way to capture her essence at each fleeting stage of her life.
It is never far from my mind that so many Ethiopian children don’t make it past their first birthday. It is a truly sobering thought. But one that also makes me want to know how to help change that statistic for the better. Looking around our area, I found a great organization called Blue Nile Children’s organization that is working to do just that. Coincidently, Leyla’s birthplace is close to the Blue Nile which is an incredibily beautiful part of the world.
This organization has found a number of ways of bring sunshine into dark situations. They recently went on a medical mission. Providing basic medical care is filling a huge need and light to dire circumstances. You will find more details in their blog which I am following.
This mission started with a rather unlikely friendship between an Ethiopian woman, Selamawit Kifle, and Richard Oslund, a Mason. He helped raise funds for her efforts while he lived. When he died, he honored their friendship by leaving $46,000 in his will to seed the medical mission. Their dream was realized with the recent opening of the clinic. Although when you read their blog, you will see opening a clinic in Ethiopia is not without many challenges.
It is amazing how much sunshine was shared with one woman’s vision and her friend’s support. They inspired others so the sunshine was then multiplied. These people bring light into my life through their efforts and inspire me to find my own ways to help. I look at my lovely daughter’s sunny face and am humbled every day. She is also an amazing source of sunshine I intend to find ways to spread.
I am a happily married, working mom with three kids - two boys, 19 and 15 years old, and one girl, 8 years old. My daughter is Ethiopian. I want to help raise awareness of the challenges and beauty in that country as well as the opportunities available to be part of the solution. And I want to share what I learn as I work to balance motherhood with career while trying to make a bigger contribution. I also blog at adoptivefamiliescircle.com - look for "Melting Pot Family" and at workingmother.com/momblog - look for "Mom, Mayhem, Missions and More".