Monday, November 19, 2012

Life comes at you fast, reality-check in the bathroom


Things change fast. Back in Kiev after three weeks in a hotel with family in Virginia. But another delay, still no move date. Nervous energy and expectation, and hard to focus on enjoying the kids as much as we should have, especially after so much separation. Now they are again pixilated skype images, happy faces nosing in toward the camera, and I am again whispering close-in to my laptop in a coffee shop, then trudging thirty minutes back through the dark holding my coat around my neck to my lonely spot. Now the expectation is tinged with long sighs into space and conversations with TJ veer off into quiet. I don’t want to say the obvious—when are you coming?! And—I miss you!

And now there is something else. A period expected mid-trip, counted on, taken for granted! Midnight panics, and then early morning brooding. This wasn’t supposed to happen! There’s just no way! How can a cycle last so many days!!

But now there is not just a flimsy Ukrainian test to prove it, there is a German one too, lined up next to the toilet, the red dashes that change a maybe into reality.

It’s exhausting to think through the long silences, the blaming, the avoidance, then the anger, then the ultimatums that are coming. It’s even worse to think of the phone calls, the callous remarks, the jokes about the Ukrainian milk-man, as if the first four rounds of such jokes were tolerable. 

I’m spent. It was easier not knowing. My kitty is next to my feet, and I’m craving sleep. Maybe if I do nothing it will all be OK.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Moved to Kiev, ahead of kids, the single professional


Writing from a chilly apartment in Kiev a few days before the anticipated turning-on of central heat, I’ve got my kitty laying across my ankles warming my feet while I warm her belly, and this laptop warms my lap. I find myself again returning to this blog after a long silence and lots of changes. And even as I try to think through the path that brought me to this point, the red blinking light on my blackberry pulls me away to read and answer something else.

TJ got a job in Kiev. I competed for a great spot in Tbilisi, but lost it to a woman who vacated her seat in Kiev. Through the musical chairs of bureaucratic rotation, we have managed to land in the same city for the next few years. Great luck! The only catch has been that my landing was six weeks ago, and TJ’s and children’s arrival is still three weeks off.

So I am now in a strange no-man’s-land of a nearly-realized dream. My days, the endless email cycle of several communicating time zones, is peopled by real and imagined exchanges. Me in clanking ministry board room pulling out cards and making an introduction, me in office car chatting about the cold, me chasing the kids on their bikes through a park, me introducing Yoshi to the old man at the music institute who teaches violin (I have started introducing myself to such people, and every introduction adds more dimension to my virtual world), me sitting along the benches at the side of the youth chess hall watching Ernest play, me quietly locking up a silent apartment and heading again to work. In my long walks at nine or ten back to the apartment, I am in my mind’s eye returning at five and in sunshine.

Friday, April 20, 2012

A talk with my children, and waiting


Now is a time for waiting—a homestudy application has been mailed (and a certain marital blow-out put before me. TJ is out of town, returning—to lots of changes—in a few weeks), and the Tbilisi hiring manager promises a response soon deciding the next job location. This kind of waiting reminds me of the weeks leading up to Puck’s overdue delivery. Bored with the long walks and endless phone calls, I headed to Home Depot and started constructing a table. Now I am running. Ernest, Yoshi and I have signed up for a 5K race in Reston next Saturday, and we’re getting up at 5:15 to practice. I’m trying to live up to my role as the school’s track coach, even though I don’t much care for running. I’m also trying to give the boys a chance to shine by showing them that they can complete an adult race. At 5:15 in the morning, it’s hard to tell whether I am trying to make them happy, or they are trying to make me happy, but we manage to shuffle downstairs and out the door. Concentrating on breathing and bird-chirping is the best way to clear my mind.

Tika has become a scrappy little girl this year, and now she grins with a hole where her front tooth used to be. She is at a perfect moment of sweetness, competitiveness and unguarded exploration. Now she’s an avid rope-jumper who commandeers neighborhood rope-jumping in front of our house, and her turn must be the longest. She’s a reckless tree-climber, who’s long forgotten the past broken elbow and mother’s unheeded warnings. She shakes the branch to let loose any brother trying to make his way up below her.

But Tika also crosses herself when ambulances pass, quietly repeating the Angel of Mercy. When, after much pleading, TJ and I bought her a real-life style baby-doll, she unbundled her from the package, scurried into another room, and proceeded to “deliver” the baby out from under her dress between her legs. She “nursed” that baby all afternoon.

Now Tika is re-reading The Color of Home, the story of a Somali refugee recounting an attack that drove his family to seek refuge in America. I passed her bedroom door, where dollhouse make-believe usually centers on eating and using the bathroom, and now she was pushing the dolls and cats under their dollhouse beds to hide from attacking rebels. She explained matter-of-factly that some of them weren’t going to make it.

Ernest seems to have grown out of the age of certainty and into an awkward awareness of bigger things beyond his control. Chief among them, of course, are school tests, a burden that weighs on him almost as much as his enormous backpack. Each test, he tells me, is a naked examination of his worth, and any little mistake a humiliation. I’m not sure whether I can rationally convince him to loosen up, or should wish for a few B’s to put things in perspective.

But while TJ is away, Ernest has always been my closest substitute to a husband—someone who really listens and always speaks his mind with me. Naturally, Ernie and I have talked many times about orphans and adoption. “I don’t know anything about this kind of thing,” he cautions, “but I guess I’ve gotten used to all the kids.” I had to laugh. It was Ernie, after all, who was carried on top of the big-belly that was Yoshi; Ernie who got booted from his crib; Ernie who rode in the backseat while Mom went into labor (Tika) behind the wheel; Ernie, who, while having his teeth brushed one morning suddenly got his head pressed into the sink and asked knowingly, ‘Are you pregnant again?’ (yes, that was Puck).

In fact, Ernie knows a lot more than he lets on. He thinks about orphans, too, about injustice and violence, about listening to God. We talk about the special need among older kids, kids his age, who are rarely selected for adoption. “I’m totally for this,” he reassures me, “because I know you’ve got a plan for everything.” Oh. That deflates my assurance, but I don’t let on. “Actually, I think about this kind of thing all the time. What is it like to lose everything and everyone, and be completely alone?” He’s a boy given over to worrying. “The worst part is that nobody would ask me what I wanted, and if some random strangers showed up, people wouldn’t ask what thought of them. People would just look me over and decide whether I was good enough for them.”

The boy who said he didn't know anything has thought the whole thing through. We had a good, long silence, running our feet through cherry blossom petals and watching Tika climb the tree. She shook the branches to rain more petals on top of us. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Other Biological Clock

I’m a pragmatist and an evangelist I guess.
So I have good reason to feel anxious about the next few weeks waiting for a phone call from Washington. We are moving someplace, sometime soon, who-to-where tbd. The happy dismantling of our Virginia home-base has already begun: the house is under contract, old clothes have been bagged out for donation. Ernest and Yoshi, Tika and Puck to varying extent understand: there will be a packing up, all-toys-on-deck, a trip to the airport, and an amazing new adventure, complete with little bags of peanuts. A new door is about to open.
But what worries me is that a door I meant to pass through seems to be closing quickly, and perhaps forever: adoption. It has been my long-cherished dream, my vision of my real contribution, my goal for our family to reach out to other kids living on the edge, and in turn to grow ourselves beyond this me-first imagination. Was bringing our kids to orphanages around Cambodia a marketing tactic? Maybe—I wouldn’t put myself past that. The kids, and especially Ernest, have asked me why we didn’t adopt a Khmer child, and they are certainly enthusiastic about taking a bold step to change the family.
But TJ has stalled. He has plied for time in a 10-year negotiation that hasn’t made us any richer or our household any more “stable” than when we started. Is he a Putin posing to negotiate while positioning himself to win? That’s not a nice thing to say, but my current reading puts me in this frame of mind. I have drummed up my parents, the kids, my friends, in a no-holds-barred effort to sway his views. Still he stalls.
Now I face an end-point. A homestudy must be done before anything else. An American household should exist, preferably with the would-be adoptive parents co-residing in it. Placement, follow-up, everything is geared toward doing it on American soil.
Do I give TJ an ultimatum? What am I bargaining with, except tears and time?
Does a woman ever get over the dream of being a mother? Last autumn I took a first feeble step. The church-based adoption informational session filled up quickly with graying single women in well put-together suits and mid-forties couples that pressed their hands together during the slideshow and asked questions about eligibility and timeframes with cracking voices. I listened quietly and took all the handouts, but couldn’t sign up, like everyone else, for a home interview. I left in a beat-up Volkswagon flanked by a Lexus and a Landrover.
You see, my cause is not as clear to everyone, and so my question about the dream of being a mother isn’t met with the same sympathy. When I share my vision and urgency, even with very close friends, it’s usually me who has to answer the questions. Aren’t you happy with your own children? (That one hurts the most) How will you manage? (aka, we’ll be watching, and you’d better not screw up!) Won’t this be financially difficult? (…And won’t it therefore dilute the financial and other resources that we feel are naturally more deserved by the biological children?) How will the children get enough attention? (ditto the above in other words) If you were so intent on adoption, why did you have so many children? (My brain is dead, I’m saying useless things) Why don’t you consider a more rewarding job? (again, brain-dead).
It seems we can congratulate middle-aged couples in Volvos when they pursue adoptions, but we are academically or altruistically opposed to orphaned children entering large, messy families that sleep two-to-a-bed and eat crock-pot dinners. What folks mean by their questions, and I may as well answer them flat-out, is that American parents who love their kids owe them rec rooms and American girl dolls, princess beds and basketball camps, Disney vacations and Massachusetts liberal arts colleges. And, what the hell, that’s not our family. We slice the pie thinner to feed more mouths. Our days in America over the next several years will be numbered. Our aim is to raise our children where life is education, where we live as outsiders with open minds, where we take chances to learn and help others, and where the stuff we accumulate is relationships and memories. If that means more 15-bean soup, then so be it.
But that brings me back to my question—is this the time for an ultimatum? Both my pragmatic and my evangelical sides agree that it is. Pragmatic, because I know the mechanics of family decision-making—the disproportionate effort to make something happen versus the loving alacrity with which we cope with fait accompli. Do I need to remind him that two of our four were joyful surprises? Evangelical, because marriage is an organic union. We don’t stay in love by staying the same. Instead, we challenge each other to grow and become better people, or hold on to each other to navigate a rough road that’s put in front of us. I can’t put aside this dream for fear that TJ will crack and break. Instead, I’ve got to push him to rise up to the challenge, and I know he can.  

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Development Clock vs Kid Clock: What's the right way to help an orphan?

Church services speak to me in recent years, and some days I’m a two-tissue parishioner. Among the parts of the mass that most resonate is the new closing line “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.” It’s a mouthful, but it captures the whole point, I think, of the Christian faith.
I’m cracking open a beer at the end of my first day back in Phnom Penh since October, mulling over some of the country news and a dated Economist article that’s left a bitter taste in my mouth.
Reader, you should know by now that I have a special place in my heart for orphans, that I visit orphanages and institutions for special-needs kids, that I’ve crisscrossed Cambodia with our kids by bus, introducing them to orphans and their communities, that my reading list spans orphans of conflict, child development, and the challenges of international adoption. You might have guessed that I’m on a crusade—or more accurately a relentless marital campaign—to move our family in this direction.
Rupert Wolfe Murray’s article in the Feb 4, 2010 Economist shouldn’t come as a surprise, though. RWM draws attention to the ugly, exploitative, profiteering side of international adoption, echoing a public outcry that followed a few heinous cases of mass kidnapping by so-called aid groups in Haiti, including New Life Children’s Refuge and Zoe’s Ark, following the earthquake. In case you don’t follow the State Department’s adoption website on openings and closings of country windows, the development community has documented for many years the kinds of abuse that can take place. On the receiving end, the US government wants assurances of a child’s orphan status, proof that parents have deceased, and that children are not trafficked for intermediaries’ profit (e.g., US does not accept adoptions from Cambodia while the country is pushed to build up its child protective services). On the giving end, countries want to know that their children are accounted for, safe and sound, and in good homes. Where legal systems are dysfunctional, identifying information is scarce, child protection systems are weak and profit motivations are high, this business can become the lowest kind of exploitation. Then countries slam the window shut, point fingers and cry foul, and millions more orphans wait.
In addition to public outcry about blatant abuse, there are opposing views in the development, evangelical, and kid-loving community about the families formed at the cost of cultural, national, maybe racial, ties broken. Not only Wolfe Murray, but many child-supportive NGOs, insist that the disconnection of children from their country of origin by international adoption is a cultural injustice, and should be the option of last resort (here's a thoughtful article on that point). Rather, investment in public health systems, in child protection capacity, and foster care, should be the focus. Then, so the argument goes, children won’t need adoptive parents: their own communities will deftly step in to shelter and raise them.
Right. I’m reading this from a cubicle in our Phnom Penh office on a laptop nested in coffee-stained presentations and earlier drafts of country development strategies. Around me colleagues are clacking away at implementation completion summaries, consultant terms of reference, and trip expense summary reports. Maybe it’s easier to trust the mechanics of developmental assistance when you’ve never worked in one of these places.
In Cambodia this year, donors are emphasizing food security. It’s a fancy name for malnutrition, and it’s one of the most critical problems facing the country, not only in 2012. Decades ago, nutritionists documented the growth-stunting effects of pre-natal and early childhood malnutrition on head circumference, height and body weight. More recently, in 2009, child development experts using sample data have demonstrated the impact of early-childhood contact and stimulation—for instance, close cuddling rather than crib-based care—on height and head circumference. Just last year, donors spotlighted The Lancet’s second series on early childhood development, that provides extensive analysis linking childhood malnutrition with physical and psychosocial stunting, and long-term and sticky wage and income-security differences. That means that even many years later, corrections in calorie intake and bodyweight do not fully recover the lost income and social potential resulting from shocks to early childhood development.
Why is this important? It reminds me of a conversation I had with another mom during the last few weeks that we sent our boys to the lackluster public elementary school serving our zip code. ‘I see so much potential here, you know?’ She was electric and engaging. It was a popcorn-and-movie fundraiser. ‘It just takes a lot of commitment from the parents. If we get enough of the right minds on the PTO, in a few years, we can really change things.’ I gave a dry smile and gathered our things. A few years put my kids in middle school, and the commitment she was referring to (no, not storytime and science projects, but wrapping-paper sales and school board petitioning) was the 15 evening hours of my workweek between dinner and kids’ bedtime. Life is short. Kids grow up fast.
So why did Wolfe Murray’s leave me feeling so uneasy? The extensive comments stream following his article articulates many of the points and counter-points to his argument. As could be expected, think-tanky critics butt heads with impassioned and often ardently religious adoptive parents. On many arguments, the two sides are really in agreement with each other, and no one seems to deny that awful abuse does take place. The sticking point seems to be direction of causality. In other words, do orphans need rescue more from systems that are corrupt, under-resourced and lacking legal structures, so people reach out to them in greater numbers; or do corrupt, weak protection systems more easily fall prey to impatient adoptive markets and greedy intermediaries looking for a path of least resistance? Does religious zeal cloud adoptive parents’ view of a child’s sovereign right to his own identity? To put it in personal terms, could I believe that I’m doing the right thing, and push so hard to make it happen against all odds, and put my vision of this future adoptive family ahead of a child’s as-yet-unarticulated vision, that I do more harm than good? 
I’m reminded of the Dalai Lama’s insightful comment before he took off on retirement. Seek in your heart sincerity of intention.
I’m also reminded how much I like our local pastor. He gives down-to-earth sermons about treating one another with kindness and spending more time with our kids, and he wraps it all up by telling us to glorify the Lord in our lives. Simple. Direct.
There’s only so much of the Economist’s pontificating that I could take before moving on to other things. We have a team of experts coming in next week to begin a project on legal reform. With any luck, we’ll move a revised banking and financial institutions law through Parliament in the next 4 years, and implementation will begin in 6 years.
Ernest will be in college by then.  Kids grow up fast.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Marital Realpolitik: The co-habitation question

I’m reading Ronald Asmus’ account of the failed negotiations and feeble deterrence under the Bush administration that witnessed Putin’s invasion of South Ossetia and then Georgia proper during the week of August 7, 2008. Saakashvili had put all his eggs in the pro-American, NATO-courtship basket, anxiously watching a Russian build-up and an ominously over-sized Russian military exercise just north of the border that spring. He had pleaded his case to Bush and Rice and Merkel, receiving various degrees of lukewarm response—commitment without timeframe, entreaties not to rush into things. Russian tanks were about 2 hours from Tbilisi when the ceasefire was finally called on August 12th, at a point when Russia had already taken South Ossetia and Abkhazia, cyber-attacked the Georgian government and financial institutions, and shelled villages along the broad, flat plain leading into the capital. The so-called resolution was really an endorsement of Russia’s tactical gains.
The book should top TJ’s reading list. It’s captivating me on the 24-hour flight back to Phnom Penh. A two-week trip, no kids in tow. Actually, we’re breaking ground on all the technical assistance that I worked to arrange and get funded last year, before relations with the government froze. Now we are mending fences, or more likely carving narrow passages through which we’ll push piecemeal projects in an essentially broke-down relationship.
For reasons unrelated I have just interviewed for a position in Tbilisi, where a dynamic reform and reconstruction effort is bearing fruit, and my skills as a relationship-builder could be put to good use. In the days leading up to my interview I was like a bureaucrat-Lazarus, called from my cubicle-tomb back to life. I tracked macro indicators and banks’ performance data, crammed project progress reports, poured over news stories and editorials. I dry cleaned my best suit and power-steered the Washington-Tbilisi videoconference to present a down-to-earth American, someone who lives and breathes client engagement, trust-building, and results.
Now, on a lame-duck voyage to Cambodia, I’m studying the 2008 Russo-Georgian war to pass the hours and distract from the approaching upheaval—and maybe conflict—in our own family. When we are not at work, managing the boisterous foursome (cook, serve, clean, repeat!), TJ and I have begun our own scenario analysis. War games? No, more like marital realpolitik. It is a best-guess effort at family co-location, with scenarios ranked on family happiness factor, professional satisfaction, and second-guessing what’s really going to happen with your spouse’s job. Right now, we’re both aiming ourselves at Eastern Europe. Will TJ and I land in the same place? What is he willing to trade? What am I willing to lose? What would it mean for a mom who has hauled ass to keep working and ‘stay in the game’  through her kids’ youngest years to drop out of the market just when her youngest is entering school? What should she say when a manager blocks her path to the husband’s country, saying her technical skills are shallow? What should she say to the husband’s employer's amiable spouse-counselor who offers alternative work in a mommies’ liaison group? Are you feeling my steam?
For no fault of TJ’s, it’s looking like all professional roads into his country are blocked (save the above-mentioned). We are into the question of second-bests. Some options are off the table: I’m not leaving my employer; he’s not leaving his. Jetting around from week to week on multi-regional assignments is out for me, too—unless we conscript a second wife. I’m still the anchor to which all things domestic—from tax preparation to bed-wetting—must be tied. Telecommuting pajama-clad from his future apartment to my current Washington-based job is an easy solution for TJ, and it’s apparently an option in the eyes of my current boss (cross-out pajamas). But to me it has all the appeal of a frontal lobotomy (see October 25 posting). After all, where is the reward for 4 kids in school, 5 years of Russian language training, and all the years of ball-busting and proving myself, to retreat sweatpants-bound to an anonymous bedroom, providing back-back-office support to a moribund back-office in DC?
The game is not over.