Wednesday, February 28, 2001

'People' explains it all

Good news, everyone! People magazine has looked into celebrity adoption, and determined that big glossy Hollywood stars who sell lots of magazines adopt their babies one piece of paperwork at a time, just like all us lowly unfamous folk. Phew! Glad to have that issue settled. Thank goodness for good, solid investigative journalism.

The secret, apparently, is not being able to wave large checks at pregnant women, but hiring lawyers in many different places to seek your baby for you. Once again, we find that the difference between the rich and not-so- in America comes down to more and better lawyers. People also reports that celebs are more willing to adopt non-white babies, and more willing to accept babies from birthmothers with somewhat colorful pasts.

And that's fair enough. I suppose I owe Rosie O'Donnell an apology for grumbling about her adopting healthy white babies and not going after those foster children she touts so much on the show; according to People, two of her adopted children are mixed race, and she does now have a foster child as well. Good for her. I wish she might publicize this more, to give people the idea that if celebrities are doing this, it must be good to do -- but I imagine she doesn't think there's anything particularly special about it, just as those of us who've adopted kids with special needs are uncomfortable when people tell us how wonderful we are. We're not wonderful. We're just parents. And so are most celebs, wherever and however they've adopted.

If the message boards on the Web site are any indication, people are not being swayed by People's celebrity defense on the adoption issue. Accusations of baby buying abound, and laments for all the less-glossy people who wait years and years for a baby. It's hard not to be annoyed, I guess. But in fact, lots of less-glossy people have gone through very questionable channels to get their babies. Lots of less-glossy people have shelled out huge sums to pursue parenting. Perhaps deep down the problem is not that celebs do anything differently, but we perceive the normal procedure as being less difficult for them. They don't have to mortgage their homes to pay for the adoption; they have people to handle the details; they have glamourous things to do while they wait.

And they have People magazine, so they don't even have to send out announcements after. Not fair! Not fair!

Tuesday, February 27, 2001

Celebrate citizenship

Today is more than just a day to feel patriotic, to celebrate international adoption and tell happy stories in the press. It's more than a day to dress kids up in red-white-and-blue and take them to parties with other adoptees, more than a day for reciting oaths, more than a day for waving flags. All that will go on, of course, because today is the day that the Child Citizenship Act 2000 goes into effect, and about 75,000 internationally adopted children nationwide become citizens.

But to me, the day means so much more. It is a day to celebrate procrastination. It is a day to celebrate triumph over paperwork. It is a day to celebrate a rare moment of helpfulness and accommodation in the adoption process. For all those children will become citizens automatically, without a paper filed, without a line waited on, without a bureaucrat phoned and yelled at. It's a beautiful thing.

And how much more beautiful for those parents who have been nagging themselves for months and years to get that citizenship paperwork going, gotta fill out one more form, gotta gather one more set of documents, gotta do it, gotta do it. If there's one thing you learn in the process of international adoption, before and after, it's that there's always another form, and nobody's going to do it for you. Gotta do it, gotta file it, gotta wait, gotta go to the courthouse and pick it up, gotta do, gotta do.

And now, you don't. Poof! One step, one obligation, one link in the neverending chain, gone for good. If you adopt a child under 18, and you or your spouse is a U.S. citizen living in the U.S., your child is a citizen the moment he or she becomes your child. Rather as if you had given birth. And that's a good thing.

Now, of course, if you want any actual proof of that citizenship, you will still have to fill out and send in and wait on and call up and chew out. We applied for our children's citizenship long before anybody had the good idea to just do it, and for our waiting and trouble we got very pretty citizenship certificates and letters to each of the children from President Clinton. (I'm sure he hand-stamped his signature himself.)

People will still want to get that stuff, to be sure. But how nice to be able to make the choice. How nice to know that if you don't ever get around to dealing with that one more form, your children will still be legally American. It's enough to make you want to wave a flag, and shred some paperwork into tickertape.

Friday, February 23, 2001

Medical morality

Is it ever okay to sacrifice the life of a child for the greater good? For the good of other children in general? For the good of other children in the same hospital? Is it ever okay to give some babies a placebo instead of a life-saving drug, knowing that without the drug they might die? Is it okay if they never had a chance of getting the drug anyway? Is it okay if their death is the only way for other babies to live?

These are the moral questions posed by a proposed drug study currently under consideration for FDA approval. The drug under examination is a new version of the surfactant sprayed into the lungs of premature babies to prevent Respiratory Distress Syndrome, a potentially fatal affliction to which preemies' underdeveloped lungs are susceptible. To test it on U.S. babies, who have access to existing versions of the drug, would be clearly unethical; it would mean depriving a baby of a life-saving drug he would otherwise have.

Yet the drug needs testing. And testing with a placebo control group is the fastest, most efficient way to do this. The drug company, feeling its new product to be superior and safer than existing versions -- and, undoubtedly, eager to start cashing in on its research -- feels time is of the essence. What to do?

The solution they hit upon falls somewhere between altruism and oppression. Why not do the testing in a poor Latin American country -- say, Ecuador -- that can't afford the existing drugs. Babies in hospitals there do not get their life-saving lung spray. And so giving it to them, for testing purposes, would be an enormous boon. It would literally be giving life to poor children. It would seem to be the best combination of idealism and technology, a pursuit of the greater good that also achieves the smaller good. It turns a necessary evil into unecessary benevolence.

Unless, of course, you're the baby getting the placebo.

If you're the baby getting the placebo, you are specifically and deliberately being denied a drug that could save your life. Scientists are watching you, hoping you will not do as well as your drugged hospital-mates. Indeed, your death would rather boost the statistics. Although there are drugs on the market right now, well past their testing phase, you will not have them. You will not have the experimental version. You will suffer even as people who could help you refuse to do so.

This, of course, has the people who make a business out of ethical concern concerned. The group Public Citizen has urged the Bush administration to put a stop to the planned testing, calling it "unethical and exploitive." One could hardly argue with that. And yet, what will the result of stopping the testing be? Instead of a small number of poor babies not getting the drug, a large number of poor babies will not get the drug. The placebo babies will be no worse off. But the babies who would have received the medication will be enormously so.

There is, apparently, a third option here. The drug could be tested solely against its competitors, skipping the placebo step altogether. The drug company argues that this would double the time the testing takes. Since it plans to sell the tested and approved drug in poor countries at a deep discount, this would prevent poor babies who aren't involved in the test from getting a chance to receive the drug. So again, the greater good. Those placebo babies will suffer not just for their fellow test participants, but for all the babies who would receive the drug in the extra year it would take to test without placebos.

And besides, are companies from richer nations obliged to give medication to poorer nations? Cannot a giver of gifts choose who receives them? If the testing is not actively harming the placebo babies, but merely keeping their care at exactly the level it would have been, why should any more be required? The babies that are helped are helped enormously; are the drug developers really obligated to do more?

As a citizen, as a Catholic who tries to hold a moral center in a world where morality becomes more and more of a liability, and as a person with a deep distrust of drug companies, my tendency would be to feel that yes, there must be a moral obligation in there somewhere. And yet -- as a parent, I can say unequivocally that I would jump at the chance to get my child a previously unattainable drug, even if there was a possibility that what he or she would get would be a worthless placebo. At worst, my child's care would be just the same as it would have been without the test; at best, it would be miraculously better. Those are odds I would take in a heartbeat, and I would be impatient with people who would argue about ethics if it slowed the onset of the testing for even a day.

As a parent, the choice seems clear. As a citizen of the world...not so much.

Which is why I'm glad I'm not the one who has to make the decisions.

Thursday, February 22, 2001

Vacation elation

The kids are out of school this week, and they just keep asking, "Why?" Why can't we go? Why is the school closed? Why aren't the teachers there? I tell them that the teachers really need a week off from all the kids, but they're not buying it.

There was a time when I'd be asking "Why?" too. Why do we need a whole week off just a month and a half after Christmas break and a month and a half before Spring break? Why do schools believe that kids can have their year chopped up like that and still learn? Why do they think parents can drop everything and provide care for their kids during hours they've depended on them being in school? I'll be the first to admit that people who deal with kids deserve breaks, but what are weekends for? At least the teachers are paid to kid wrangle. Parents do it for free, and we never get a vacation.

This time around, though, I'm just enjoying the freedom. Freedom from homework. Freedom from making lunches in the morning. Freedom from dragging kids out of bed, through breakfast, and into the car. Freedom from drilling test material into my daughter's head. Freedom from wondering what my son's behavior chart will look like. Freedom from drop-offs and pick-ups. Ah, sweet freedom.

School vacations -- when we haven't actually planned a trip, when the kids are just going to be hanging around and underfoot -- have always seemed like a burden, but this year, when we are working so hard day and night with our daughter to keep her afloat in mainstream third-grade, it seems like a release. Of course, we're supposed to be working with her throughout the week, looking at her next reading story and next math chapter. But if we just float along on a cloud of Nickelodeon and Disney Channel for a few days, who's to know? No hurry, no worry, there's plenty of time.

I have been making her read a couple of chapters from a book with me every night. The current volume is that classic of children's literature, "Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen in 'Billboard Dad,'" a novelization of their Academy Award-winning film. Not. I should be worried that although she can read the words, she has absolutely no idea whatsoever where the story is going or what it's about. Not that the plot's so worth following in this case, but does she understand the words she reads at all? I'll think about that next week.

Or couldn't they just make vacation last a little longer?

Wednesday, February 21, 2001

Talking about adoption: Are you? Why not?

It's happened more times than I can recall: I open my big mouth and mention to somebody -- an acquaintance maybe, maybe a stranger -- that my kids are adopted, and they tell me that they know someone who is thinking about or in the process of adopting. It's nothing we would ever have discussed if I hadn't volunteered my information, yet often I'm able to give suggestions or advice, or just stress to them that what their friend/relative/self is doing is a Very Good Thing.

I hope this means that there are some prospective families out there who occasionally hear from a friend or loved one that they met someone who adopted and was really happy about it -- as opposed to the usual scare stories adopting couples are treated to. Maybe instead of, "Oh, I read all kids from Russia are psychopaths," or "I keep reading about people disrupting or even killing their Russian kids!" or "You'll ruin your life," somebody is hearing, "Well, you know, I talked to someone the other day who adopted from Russia, and she was really very happy."

Maybe not. My kids do have pretty significant special needs, and so maybe the message that gets out is, "This lady says she's happy, but boy, those kids, it breaks your heart." Maybe they're just counting up, hmmm, one with learning disabilities, one with FAE, to add to their total of tragedies. The message I want to get out -- the one I think is far more important than "There are many perfect and problem free kids -- go get one!" -- is, "There will be problems. They are problems you can handle. You can love a child with problems, and be deliriously happy to be their parent. Look at me!"

That's the best I can do, because that's what my situation is. I deal with issues related to my kids' institutionalization every day, and so maybe that's why it's so easy for me to bring up adoption; it's not possible to pretend that my little ones had no life before me. Which makes me wonder about why we always hear "bad" stories about adoption -- international or otherwise -- in the media. Whenever one appears, a big cry goes up in the adoption community: Why don't they ever tell the "good" stories? But are the people who have the good stories telling them themselves?

I suspect that the more happy the family, the more seamless the fit of child and parent, the less damage the child brings to the relationship, the more "normal" everything seems, the more likely that family is to make adoption a non-issue. This may be done in the name of privacy -- it's the child's story to tell when the child is old enough to tell it -- or in the name of protection -- kids will tease the child if they know, and adults will treat him or her differently -- or in the name of good old-fashioned secrecy. But the effect is the same; people don't hear the good stories. They only hear when something goes wrong, and the veil is lifted.

What, then, do we expect the media to do? Send out investigative reporters to comb our communities looking for happy adoptive families, ambush them by their minivans, force them to confess that, yes, our kids are adopted and look how happy we are! Bad news is always way easier to find.

If that bad news rankles you, though, if you feel that the story of happy families like yours is not being told, then my advice is, start telling it. Tell it to strangers. Tell it to acquaintances. Tell it to people at church and people at school. Get a free website from Blogger and tell it on the Web. Call your local newspaper and give them a good, inspirational reason to do a story about you. Write one yourself.

Or enjoy your privacy, but don't complain when unhappy people don't.

Tuesday, February 20, 2001

Weighty matters

So now that our new president is targeting education, and working to raise standards, and assure every child a right to excel on standardized tests designed for middle-class white kids without learning disabilities, perhaps he can also tackle one of the greatest education-related health hazards facing our great nation today. I'm talking, of course, about the Backpack Problem.

Simply put, all those high standards are causing kids to have to drag home enough books to start a small library. And rather than toting those books in the crook of their tired arms, as generations of students have done before them, they are toting those books in backpacks, some of which weigh as much as a small horse. They are putting these weights on their slender shoulders and turning their tender little spines into question marks. Or they are pulling these weights behind them in stewardess-size suitcases that must surely be putting undue strain on their arms, and really just look ridiculous.

Doctors are starting to worry. A recent study of Massachusetts fifth- through eigth-graders found that on average they carried packs whose mass exceeded 15 percent of their body weight. A third of the students complaned of back pain. It is unknown if they were being asked to, say, take out the trash at the time the pain was reported.

It would help if students wore backpacks that offered good support instead of trendy ones that hang down below their bottoms. It would help if they would wear them squarely over their shoulders with a belt buckled around their waist, instead of slumped over one shoulder. And it would help if teachers would just knock it off with the homework already. But it's more likely that schools will start giving kids sets of textbooks to keep at home so that the need for toting is minimized. This will happen when, like, money starts dropping from trees.

As it happens, though, our little household has indeed had a set of my daughter's textbooks since the beginning of the year. She is classified as special-ed, and was supposed to have an instructional aide helping her in her mainstream class; when we waived that, and decided to let her go it alone, just sending us a lousy set of books must have seemed like a budget bonanza over paying an additional teacher's salary. Perhaps I should have asked them to send us some furniture to go with it.

So my girl has not had to carry more than folders and lunch and the occasional paperback workbook in her big ol' backpack. It's been positively featherweight. No back problems here! And so, of course, she's been unhappy. This is a child who loves to fit in and be like everybody else. If everybody else is eating Lunchables, she wants Lunchables. If everybody else is buying Britney Spears paperbacks from the Scholastic Book Club, she wants a Britney Spears paperback, even though when it comes to actually reading the thing she is not as able as everybody else. And if everybody else is stooped over from the weight of a textbook-stuffed backpack, well, she wants to be stooped over too. Moooom, why won't you let me?

The straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak, was when another student noticed she wasn't putting the assigned books in her bag and accused her of not listening to the teacher. Now, she is a child of many weaknesses, but one of her strengths is listening to the teacher. She is probably the most organized child in that class. She knows when to take her book out, what book, what pencil, what assignment. She may not always understand the content, but she's got the form down cold. She's the one who tells kids who've been out of the classroom for some reason what they ought to be doing now. So the suggestion that she isn't taking books home because she isn't paying attention is insupportable--and the idea of telling everybody she has the books at home alread because she needs help is embarrassing.

So, she's now a member of the too-darn-heavy brigade. She is so excited to be weighted down. Surprises, a little, by how heavy it is, but proud to be one of the bent and crooked. Mr. Bush, could you start working on this problem now, please? Or set aside a lot more Medicare money for back surgery in the year 2050.

Monday, February 19, 2001

Yours, mines, and ours

My kids have trouble saying "mine." Not that they're not possessive about their things. Oh, no, no, no. Noooooo, no, no, no, no. Sitting here at sibling rivalry ground zero, I would never makes such a foolish statement.

It's just that they can't say the word quite right. It comes out "mines," every time, no matter how apoplectically Mama and Papa try to correct them. "It's mines!" "That's mines!" "Where's mines!" "He has mines!"

We hear it a lot. And generally, we've been blaming the misconstruction on their five-year-old cousin, who's been saying "mines" for as long as she's been claiming things that weren't hers. So distinctive to this cousin was the word "mines" that we figured our kids were just mimicking. That's how we wanted them to learn English, right -- by mimicking homegrown kids? Be careful what you wish for.

Lately, though, I've been thinking about the English language -- an activity, to be sure, fraught with peril. The more you think about English, the less sense it makes, and the more you get caught up in the idiocies and idiosyncracies, until every word you look at looks wrong and every grammatical rule seems ridiculous and you spiral down and down and down into utter incomprehensibility... Or just decide not to think about it much.

But when you have children, especially children tackling English as a second language, and most especially children for whom language is difficult to start out with, you are from time to time called upon to understand the way that English works. And explain it. Or at least say, "Honey, it makes no sense to you, it makes no sense to me, it makes no sense to your teacher, but this is the way it is, and you'll just have to memorize it."

And so it is with "mine." Perhaps it is an enduring habit with my two not because they're imitating, but because they're using logic and good sense. And of course, if you're using logic and good sense with the English language, you're most likely going to be wrong. To their way of thinking, no doubt, all possessives end in "s." His. Hers. Ours. Theirs. Its. Mama's. Papa's. The children's. They all end in s, and if they don't, you put an apostrophe on and add an s to the end. Adding an s is how you make a possessive. So why on earth would it be "mine"? Why would one word be so different than every other word with the same function? And why do Mama and Papa keep telling us to do it wrong? They must have trouble with the language, too.

They're not wrong there.

Friday, February 16, 2001

Movie deprived

We've talked here before about what it means to have no life -- that is, of course, to be a parent. Probably most parents notice a precipitous decline in their nights out when they have children, but I wonder if parents of children with special needs notice it more accutely, since our absence from the household even for an evening is more fraught with peril. Is whatever we're going to do worth the risk of a behavioral decline from our challenging child? Is it worth the time we won't be working and interacting with him? Is it worth disrupting everyone's routine? And most importantly, who the heck can we find that's willing to watch him?

We've been lucky lately to have a grandma living right downstairs, so the last question is less troubling. But the others remain, and I find that the kids are not the only ones who cling to their routine -- I cling to it too, and it's hard to rouse myself to plan an evening, get in the car, go somewhere, see something, and get home late. Few movies are so compelling that they give me a reason to break out.

And most of the time it doesn't much bother me. I read Entertainment Weekly cover to cover, so I know what's going on at the cinema. I can have a conversation with adults about popular culture, if I'm ever alone with adults long enough. I know what the folks on late-night talk shows are plugging. But once a year, when the Oscars roll around, I realize how much my life has changed. I used to at least make an effort to see everything; now -- nothing.

I did have high hopes this year, because I did see one film that had Oscar aspirations. That film was Almost Famous, and I love it dearly, but it got robbed in the nominations. I guess I can follow the supporting actress, original screenplay, and best song races with particular interest now, but the major line-ups mean nothing to me.

The other two films I saw this year -- is it possible I only saw three altogether? I'm not counting Thomas and the Magic Railroad. Return to Me is another film I loved, but it slipped off the radar almost immediately. No Oscar noms there. And while I found Disney's The Kid charming, clunky title or no, even I wouldn't try to make Oscar claims for it. So I'm looking at a sort of so-what Oscar night, though I intend to boo Gladiator throughout. I'm not fond of films where families are slaughtered as motivating factors for the hero.

Thursday, February 15, 2001

Physically uneducated

Talked to my 7-year-old son's gym teacher this week about the recurring "needs improvement" on his report card, and it turns out that he just flat-out doesn't want to participate in physical education activities.

Which proves that, adopted or no, he's my boy alright.

I didn't have low muscle tone, delayed motor skills, or fetal alcohol effects to blame my low phys-ed grades on. I was just short, slow, and uncoordinated. But if I could have gotten away with, say, telling the teacher I was just too tired to do all those exercises, you can bet I would have.

Severe sleepiness, apparently, is my son's current common gym state. Now, it may be that he really is awake for large patches of the night and therefore sleep deprived; he's always content to lay in bed humming and rocking and not bothering anybody, so unless we sit awake in his room all night, there's really no way to know. (And of course, if he knew we were sitting in his room, he wouldn't sleep at all.)

It may also be that, in sensory-integration-speak, his engine is running low when he's in gym. He may react to his many morning transitions by shutting down, and shut-down looks like sleepiness to him. Since I read entirely too much, I could probably map out a very detailed case for this, though it would likely not include any very constructive things to do about it.

What I really think, though, is that the sleep-deprived act is really a variation on the "spaghetti boy with limbs of lead" technique with which I am so sadly familiar. It's not noisy, it's not actively resistant, it begs sympathy, but what it translates into nonetheless is: "I don't want to and you can't make me." The gym teacher reports that he lays down on the floor, exhausted. I'll bet.

It's still an improvement over the beginning of the year, when he resisted by running around the gym screaming. But it's still not participation, and the teacher is puzzled because she feels he can do everything she's asking. It's a special-ed-only class, with just his 9-child group, and so she's not exactly asking them to slam dunk. Still, I know my boy, and until he's absolutely confident and comfortable and completely able to do a skill, he doesn't want to do it at all. It happened with walking, talking, toilet training, reading--months or years of resistance, and then suddenly complete competence, bam.

Which means that one day, one year, he'll be running and jumping and walking balance beams like a champ. And until then, he'll be fighting it in one way or another, becoming at least the third generation of gym-balkers in my family. I do want him to succeed, but I'll confess I can't be too upset about this particular avoidance on his part. It will, however, make a fine excuse to make him go to bed earlier.

Wednesday, February 14, 2001

Prematurely mature

If you think little girls today are looking more and more grown up, sophisticated and sexualized, it may be more than just their clothes or their MTV-spawned attitude. Endocrinologists are finding that girls are starting puberty at younger and younger ages, sprouting breasts and pubic hair as early as age 7. Previously, those physical changes weren't seen until around 10.

The theories for this precipitous onset range from fat (today's kids are more apt to be overweight, and that can increase the production of hormones) to lack of exercise (think about how asexual all those ballerinas and gymnasts are well into their teen years) to chemical pollutants (plastic byproducts called phthalates are suspected culprits). And the concerns are that all these early bloomers may attract attention from older kids and adults that they have no idea how to handle or even understand.

If the thought of second-graders with cleavage is disturbing to you, it...well, I have to selfishly admit that it's not so disturbing to me. In fact, secretly, I'm glad to hear it. It means that my two-grades-behind daughter, now a 10-year-old in 3rd grade, will not be the only kid in class with breasts. Since the age of menstruation is holding fast at 12 or 13, she may be the first to go through that transition, but at least she doesn't look freakishly more mature than all of her classmates.

The sad thing is, she's a couple of years away from full puberty, and she already has a bigger chest than me. I wonder if I could get me some of those phthalates?

Tuesday, February 13, 2001

Good news?: A TV report on adoption remains calm

Well, who knew I was so all-fired powerful? Yesterday in this space, when considering a couple of recent "All children from Russia are psychopaths" news stories, I wondered:

Alright, can someone explain this to me? We have, over the last few week, had several stories about domestic adoptions that could have caused reporters to do some really probing, negatively charged examination of how babies get handed out in the U.S. How does an unmarried actress plagued by reports of eating disorders and passing out at work get the okay to adopt an infant? Are internet agencies and, by extension, anybody involved in arranging private adoptions really just matchmaking, or are they selling babies? If a celebrity couple work apart so much they can't keep their marriage together, how did a social worker suppose they'd be able to parent children together? Are their no safeguards in domestic adoption? No sense? Can anybody with enough money get a baby? Those stories would make my blood boil, to be sure, but I could understand why they were coming up now. I was vaguely aware at the time that our local CBS news affiliate was touting an adoption-related story -- called "Adoption Can Break Hearts," of course -- and given the current trends I was sure it would be another flogging of Eastern European adoption. So imagine my surprise when I heard lines like this coming out of my TV:

America's crowded foster care system keeps adoptable children in limbo for years at a time, even though it is estimated that there are about six adoption seekers for every available child.

In the meantime, however, Americans are bombarded with images of high profile celebrity adoptions. The wealthy can easily afford the fees in this sellers market, which can quickly top $35,000.

Critics say American adoptions lack uniform regulation or consistent enforcement. For instance, the time period in which a birth parent can change his or her mind can range from 12 hours to 90 days. But the biggest problem is when desperate adoption seekers try to go it alone and get lost in the maze. So nice to have a news story not say that the biggest problem is when desperate adoption seekers bring damaged kids from overseas. That's the slant that rankled so much in the recent pair of AP articles on Eastern European adoption. Of course, the local Channel 2 report didn't mention Eastern European adoption; the desperate adoption seekers in its story went to China, where as everybody knows the kids are perfect and not damaged at all by living in orphanages. You can almost hear the news director whispering: "You know, them kids from Russia, they ain't right. We're just not going to mention them."

But I'm being defensive. This was a program with a generally less-than-hysterical tone and an appropriate point of view: People who want to adopt are left with few options because the American adoption system and foster-care system are not operated in a responsible and appropriate way. It was relatively non-demonizing of all the individuals involved; even the father who was choking back tears at the thought of returning his nearly adopted infant to her birthmother admitted that it was the birthmother's right. My blood remained its appropriate temperature through the entire segment. For a report on the problems of adoption, it was remarkably hyperbole-free, and so I would like to present those responsible with the first Mothers with Attitude "No Attitude" Award, for reporting on adoption and special-needs issues in a nonalarmist manner. May there be many more.

Still, though, couldn't they have called it "Uncompleted Adoptions Can Break Hearts"?

Monday, February 12, 2001

Another round of international-adoption scare stories

Alright, can someone explain this to me? We have, over the last few week, had several stories about domestic adoptions that could have caused reporters to do some really probing, negatively charged examination of how babies get handed out in the U.S. How does an unmarried actress plagued by reports of eating disorders and passing out at work get the okay to adopt an infant? Are internet agencies and, by extension, anybody involved in arranging private adoptions really just matchmaking, or are they selling babies? If a celebrity couple work apart so much they can't keep their marriage together, how did a social worker suppose they'd be able to parent children together? Are their no safeguards in domestic adoption? No sense? Can anybody with enough money get a baby?

Those stories would make my blood boil, to be sure, but I could understand why they were coming up now. But in fact, no one much questions how celebrities adopt (do they even need homestudies?), and after a flurry of righteous indignation, the saga of the biracial twins caught in a tug-of-war between two sets of adoptive parents has pretty much faded from view, taking all those sticky private adoption questions with it. And so, in need of a cheap readership or ratings boost, the media has gone back to one of its favorite bloodsports: attacking international adoption.

There's actually nothing new on this story, no fresh outrage, just the same old statistics to pump and sad parents to pity. Many of the folks quoted in stories like the one by Deborah Hastings, which has been circulated by AP to papers across the country, or the one that popped up recently in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, have been telling their tales of woe for years, whether in the news or on internet e-mail lists. Our heart certainly goes out to them. But must it continue to go out, over and over again? For no new reason?

And must the tone of the article always be so grim? And must the title always be something like "Foreign Adoption: Bringing Heartache Home"? And must they always contain lines like these, from Hastings' piece:

"It has taken a decade for Americans to realize that hidden in a deluge of children adopted from Eastern Europe are untold numbers of violently and profoundly disturbed youngsters."

"Two Russian children, a boy and a girl, lost in America with little hope of redemption, seemingly destined for prison or worse and adopted from agencies that lied or misled, their parents claim."

"They arrive by the thousands from loveless orphanages in Romania and Russia, adopted by Americans desperate for children. Among the immigrants are deeply damaged youngsters who will try to kill new siblings and family pets."

And must they always ignore lines like this, also from the AP story:

"Since 1990, more than 100,000 foreign children, the majority from those two countries, have been adopted into American families. Most fit fine."

Hello? Most fit fine? Then why don't we ever hear about them?

Or, for that matter, about the percentage of children adopted domestically through foster care, babies adopted privately, or for that matter children who are not adopted at all but living with perfectly nice birthfamilies, who grow up to be psychopaths? Surely we've got enough homegrown ones of those that we could lay off the little immigrants for a while.

Friday, February 09, 2001

How I booked my flight

High up on the desk in the corner of my bedroom, I keep stacks of books I'm meaning to read. The stack of light, fun reading stays pretty static, because I never get to it. The stack of serious books on neurology and child development gets higher and lower as I buy new books and plow through them. It's been stacked high lately because man, some of these books, brimming with good content as they are, are murder to get through. The ones written with parents in mind fly by, but are often so fluffy you wonder if you're missing some heavier content. But the ones written for professionals have such heavy content that it's often hard to pick yourself up off the chair afterwards. Sometimes this is because you are asleep.

On a recent plane trip sans kids (and have I mentioned how very pleasant air travel is when you don't have to spend the entire time entertaining and shushing small persons?), I was able to knock two books off my pile. Well, not really; I knocked one book off the pile, bought two new books, and read one of them, for a total transition of one additional book.

But I did read two. The westbound choice was Ann Streissguth's Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: A Guide for Families and Communities, which is one of those volumes that leads you to shout "Yes!" periodically, to the dismay of your fellow passengers. I'm happy to recommend it to anyone dealing with FAS/FAE, or contemplating adopting a child who might be affected, which for my money would be just about any child in Eastern Europe. The great thing about the book--and the thing that's hardest to find in literature on this subject--was that it held out hope that the secondary effects of fetal alcohol (prison, teen pregnancy, drug abuse) could be ameliorated by early diagnosis and intervention, forthrightness about the disability, and an understanding that things like consequences and cause and effect will always be difficult if not impossible for these individuals to grasp. Realistic expectations and a willingness to head off problems before they start are key. I can do that for my little FAE guy. I have been for a while, and it's good to know I'm on the right track.

And helpful in that mission would be a book like the one I read on the way home, The Explosive Child by Ross Greene. The author posits that, just as some kids with neurological or other challenges may be delayed in speech or motor skills, they may also be delayed or inmpaired in their ability to handle frustration. And kids who can't handle frustration will get stuck and not be able to find a reasonable way out of a frustrating situation. So the pressure builds and builds until they explode. Parents of these kids, Greene suggests, will do better to head the problem off early, before rational thought becomes impossible; adding to the pressure by discipline and demands only makes the crisis worse, and reasoning with the child when the incident is over does no good because reason isn't something the child can access during an implosion.

I can sure see the wisdom in this approach. It's fairly similar to the one in Raising Your Spirited Child, one of my all-time faves in special-needs parenting. My son doesn't explode so much as freeze, like a computer that's stuck on one page and won't get off no matter how many keys you pound or curses you shout. I've definitely learned that heading off problems is hugely more effective than trying to deal with meltdowns once they've started. If that's a new concept to you, or if your child is having problems with aggressive behavior (as seems to be a trend now on so many of the mailing lists I belong to; is it the moon?), check out Greene's book. I read it in one sitting, but of course, I was thousands of miles away from my own spirited kids at the time.

Tuesday, February 06, 2001

Married with adopted children

The recent breakup of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, splashed across the TV and the internet and every supermarket tabloid in creation, gives me cause once again to think about the media's ever-so-sensitive treatment of adoption. Every report I heard or read was careful to mention that the couple had been married for 10 years and had two adopted children. What their adoption status had to do with the story is never revealed. So why does it even have to be mentioned?

Maybe because it always has been. You never read anything about Tom and Nicole's two except that they're adopted. It's been in every news story about this power couple. And somehow, I've never felt it was intended in a positive light, never an indication of how nice it is that these two beautiful people formed their family through adoption. It's always seemed to me to be a snide little comment on how something's not quite right with these two. Sure, they look great, they're big stars, they have everything, but their children are adopted. Not quite perfect, are they?

Maybe I'm just being sensitive. It's not like I keep my kids' adoption a big secret. I've been known to blab about it and then wonder why I felt a need to. But I think, in my own defense, that the revelation usually has at least some relevance to the story I'm telling. The media seems to feel no such compunction.

At what point, one wonders, does a family just become a family and not an adoptive family? Alas, the Cruise-Kidman kids may never find out. As their parents move on to other relationships, they will always be the kids adopted in this one. But even for non-celeb, non-divorced, non-disrupted families, I suspect that the adoption label never really goes away. In happy times, that may be fine. But in tragedy, it becomes a curse. A child with problems is heartbreaking under any circumstances, but an adopted child with problems is a heartbreak you asked for.

I'm reminded, in all of this, of the time recently when someone pointed out a young woman in a wheelchair to me and said, "Now that's a real adoption horror story." Turns out she was adopted as an infant, contracted a degenerative disease in her teens, and was now paralyzed. And yet, of course, the most important fact about this was not the tragic disease, but the fact that she was adopted. Would someone, in a similar situation, call it a real childbirth horror story?

About as likely as the media talking about childbirth methods used the next time a married-with-children star couple implodes.

Monday, February 05, 2001

They need me, they need me not

Last week, I had to go out of town, alone, for the first time since we adopted our children in 1994. I'd never been away from my son overnight; I'd only been away from my daughter one night, when I took her brother to a way-out-of-town specialist. At that time, years ago, she was hysterical in my absence. Knowing how much my son needs his routine to keep in even precarious balance, I worried that he might melt down. Both kids have been doing well in school this year--would missing Mama disrupt that? Put them in a tailspin? Have repercussions months from now?

I worried, because that's what I do. I wrote notes to the teachers, to make sure they would be extra understanding and supportive through the inevitable tears and tantrums. I drilled my husband in all the reasons he should expect and tolerate worsened behavior. I talked to the kids on a daily basis about how I had to go away and it was okay to feel sad and everything else would be just the same and everybody they knew would help them. I determined to call once or twice a day from my remote location. But given my kids' various disabilities--language and learning for my daughter, fetal alcohol effect and all its attendant memory issues for my son--would it be enough? Would they process my absence? Would they remember I'm coming back?

Well, I'm back now, have to admit that it appears my being away made no difference at all to anybody. They did just fine. Teachers report no major behavioral changes. Father reports no major behavioral changes. Children report no particular unhappiness. Oh, they missed me. They were glad I was back. My son's special-ed class even made a Welcome Home poster for me with everyone's signatures on it. But in terms of falling apart without my healing presence...hey, Mom? Get over yourself.

And I'm glad, of course. Of course I'm glad. It's what I hoped. It's a big milestone. It's huge, really, this new ability for both of them to handle change. Good for them. Really. I'm proud of them. And I should be. I should be delighted.

So why do I feel like chopped liver?