Saturday, February 26, 2011

Cause Our Faith to Rise

Has you faith been sinking? Mine has.

Way back at the beginning of what I promised would be a series on the subject of situational anxiety in adoption I shared that when I finally screwed up the courage to ask my former social worker about the phenomena I and so many of my friends had experienced, she suggested it sounded typical of situational anxiety.

We're not in the process of adopting. But I have been feeling the ordinary-life form of situational anxiety.

There have been too many cliffhangers in the past few weeks for my sanity: when/whether the final pieces of my manuscript would come together; whether I could get the Dakota font functional on my computer (my Dakota iapi, Dakota words, in the MS were in English until last week because of a year-long technical headache); whether my co-editor's printer would recognize/print the Dakota font; whether there was a misunderstanding about 147 year old sources being out of copyright; whether the permissions my home research institution customarily writes would pass muster with my publisher.

And that was just on the professional front. On the home front we're in the middle of an FASD eval. for Hope and the requested growth records have been challenging to produce; we're 10 days out from Joy's surgery and she's had two fevers in the past two weeks; Katie turned 11 today (only stressful because, imagining I'd be done with the MS a month ago, I had okayed an elaborate 24-hour sleepover & waterpark adventure with her best friends from her former private school); and I promised friends a conclusion to a series on situational anxiety in adoption, but have been too busy putting out other fires to sit down and write.

However, God is good. By this afternoon, 22 hours into the 24 hour sleepover marathon, He let me see why I was feeling frazzled: a few weeks' worth of sequential situational anxiety crises. And because I've been drafting the posts for the end of this series in my head, I had an arsenal of coping strategies mentally at hand. So, having just tested a bunch of them on myself in real life today, here's what helped me.

First I thanked God for giving me previous experience with SAA and the opportunity to start a series on it, because in the process, I've been refining insights into how my emotional life is wired. So I recognized it when I finally saw it.

Second, I took a caffine tablet to clear the stress-hormone fuzz from my brain and help me focus on the tasks at hand. The box says it is the same amount of caffine as in a cup of coffee. I wouldn't know because I don't drink it. But for me, it is much more effective than a large Coke and some good dark chocolate --with the plus of being calorie-free :). The extra bonus was the chuckle produced by the warning bolded on the box: "Not to be used as a substitute for sleep."

Third, I sat down at my computer, opened this post and articulated the reasons I was feeling overwhelmed (above). Writing gives me some persepective. When I see it in print, I have a little more empathy because it is obvious that there are concrete reasons I am feeling humanly overwhelmed.

Fourth, I consciously recited God's faithfulness.  I went down my list of stressors and articulated each outcome. I saw that He resolved every single crisis --met very need --on time. Not necessarily on my time. Not necessarily in the way I imagined. But before every deadline, He diverted the potential calamity. In fact, He delivered the MS to my editor five days ahead of the absolute deadline. (Silly me: under my plan it was supposed to be in four weeks ago!)

Know what that does to buck up my faith in myself and my ability to accomplish what I set out to do? Exactly nothing. In fact, the opposite: it reminds me I can do nothing. That, I believe, is exactly what God intended: to slash my pride and remind me that any gifts I've been given come from Him and only go as far as He has determined they should go. I was powerless to accomplish 95% of what needed to happen these past few weeks. That feeling of powerlessness was at the root of my anxiety. But instead of refocussing my attention on God's all-sufficiency and allowing my heart to lay hold of the peace that brings, I let myself get emotionally hung up worrying about how I would accomplish the impossible.

Know what that does for the two looming issues on the list that are not yet resolved? It affirms that I cannot cope and gives me great confidence that God will take care of those unknows, too.

Fifth, I'm  going to take melatonin when I go to bed tonight so I can get a solid night's sleep. This isn't a lack of faith on my part. Rather, it recognizes that levels of anxiety I've been experiencing have biochemical consequences and there's some biological equilibrium that needs to be restored. I believe God designed restful sleep to do just that.

Sixth, I am rejecting the temptation to disregard the injunction,"Neglect not the assembling of yourselves together." My husband and I are again entering a phase where we'll be taking turns staying home with Joy on Sunday mornings  until God brings us through the surgery and and out of her body cast, hopefully just in time for Easter Sunday. My husband has agreed to  take the first turn home tomorrow because my soul needs to feed on sweet morsels of truth like this one from worship two weeks ago (the last time I was there):
Teach us, Lord, full obedience,
Holy reverence, true humility;
Test our thoughts and our attitudes
In the radiance of Your purity.
Cause our faith to rise, cause our eyes to see
Your magestic love and authority.
Words of power that can never fail --
Let their truth prevail over unbelief.

Speak, O Lord, and renew our minds;
Help us grasp the heights of your plans for us:
Truths unchanged from the dawn of time
That will echo down for eternity.
And by grace we'll stand on your promises.
And by faith we'll walk as You walk with us.
Speak, OLord, till your church is built,
And the earth is filled with Your glory.*

God is so faithful. Sing a prayer like that from your heart, rooted in scripture, framing exegestical exhortation to will God's will  (John 7:17) , and God will accomplish it. Even if it takes weeks like these past two to bring it to pass.

*"Speak, O Lord" by Stuart Towsend, updated by Keith Getty. Copyright 2005 ThankYou Music.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Hospitalization Experience?

Yesterday, Joy and I took a pre-op tour of Gillette Children's Hospital in St. Paul, where she will be having orthopedic surgery on March 8. We've been a Gillette family for ten years now and Joy has been a frequent visitor since the time she came home. But this will be our fist inpatient stay, guestimated to be 6-7 days. I will be staying with her.

Some of you are veterans of many hospitalizations. What advice do you have for me, a newbie? What is helpful for me to know or do ahead of time? I would be grateful to learn from your experiences!

She'll be coming home in a spica cast for another five weeks (a body cast stretching from below her shoulder blades down to her toes) if anyone has advice that.

Thank you!

"Where I Come From"

by Elizabeth Eun, KorAm Journal February 2011

I have a friend to thank for this link to a facinating article, "Where I Come From" in the on-line content at KorAm. Reporter Elizabeth Eun profiles Emile Mack, the second-highest ranking fire fighter in Los Angeles, who was adopted at the age of three by an African American couple. Mack speaks freely of how his racial identity developed as Korean adoptee in multi-ethnic LA. He and his wife recently adopted a daughter from Korea via SWS.

Thanks Nora!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

From the Outside In: Information

This is the first post in the second half of a series I started several weeks ago on the experience of situational anxiety during the waiting phases of adoption, or SAA.

I will approach the last half of this series the way people eat an apple: start at the outside and bite by bite, post by post, nibble away to the core. In these first few posts, we'll be on the outside of the apple, the skin. The surface people see. The part of ourselves that makes contact with the world outside, that for better or worse filters and protects our inner life.

But I've changed my plan for this post. Having updated my own experiences by discussing this with friends who've been there more recently, I think in the big picture it may be more helpful to take the information I had imagined posting here directly to those who are in a position to help.

So there's a big parentheses in this series, a polyvocal conversation about the information we recieve from adoption professionals during the wait: how it affects SAA and how well (or not) it prepares us for the reality of the child we're adopting.

Information is one of the most powerful anti-anxiety meds for managing SAA. Families have almost no control over the information they receive; they are at the mercy of the people who dispense it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ode to the Perfect Paci

I had to dredge this up from my pre-blogging days because.... Long sigh. I confess: Perfect Paci's days are, now, sadly numbered.  That story needs this  one for background: my love affair with Joy's pacifiers.

At our next garage sale there will be a shoe box of pairs of almost new pacifiers: one still in the package never used; the other one of each pair tried once and rejected by our resident Paci connoisseur. All are the byproduct of the Great Pacifier Quest –which about half of us are launched on when our baby comes home from Korea attached to a single specimen of a rare pacifier, as of two of my three have been.
The first time, we got lucky: our daughter’s favorite Korean pacifier had an American twin. The second time I thought we were even luckier. She came home with an American-branded pacifier --Avent, which is available in Korea.
Then two bad things happened: Avent stopped manufacturing that model; and my daughter started using her pacifiers for teething.
Some might think I’m crazy to spend hours of free time standing in store aisles, chewed pacifier in hand, peering through packaging at new pacifiers, trying to discern: is the straight part of the stalk long enough? Is that most- elusive bulbous end just right: silicone, not latex; ovid, not round; gently flat yet missing that abhorrent smashed-flat underbelly that makes other pacifiers orthodontically correct?
 Other well-intended folks insist this is the natural time to ‘wean’ my daughter of her pacifier –perhaps attach the last one to a helium balloon in an official bye-bye ceremony, sending this last remnant of infancy winging up to heaven where (I’m supposed to tell her) a new little baby might need it more than she does.
They misunderstand.  Nobody needs the Perfect Pacifier more than I do.
I’m 42 years old. This is my fourth child and the only one ever to routinely sleep 13 hours at a stretch. I am a sane mom for the first time in nine years because I actually sleep at night. My baby sleeps like a baby --as long as there are two or three pacifiers floating at hand in her dreams so that at any moment she can blindly reach out, grope for a pacifier, touch the magical click-clack of ring on rim, and sound the blissful suck-suck-sigh of a child drifting back to sleep with no help from mommy or daddy.
No: it is not craziness, but sanity that sends me to store after store trying to clone the Perfect Paci.
Saturday morning, I found it. My baby is now the indiscriminate lover of NEW Perfect Pacifiers which, in the dark, must sufficiently pass for the treasured, chewed-up loved-ones.  Now I can retire those, and also lay to rest the worry she’ll bite the end completely off a pacifier and choke herself to death.
 Sunday afternoon I bought six more, and advised my husband we might as well buy stock in Philips-Avent because I intend to let this child keep her treasured pacifiers in bed at night until she goes to college if she wants to.
So the moral of the story is this: when you travel to Korea to bring home your baby, at your first meeting ask your foster mother:  “Does he use a pacifier? What brand? Where can I buy it?” Then ask your social worker to write out “X [fill in the brand] pacifier” in Hangul and carry the note with you when you go out. Show it at every likely shop and stock up on Perfect Pacifiers in Korea.  When you get back home, if you’re one of the lucky few whose baby spits out his pacifier and never looks back, you’ll have a treasure to offer the sleep deprived parents of Korean children who make desperate Internet posts –or stalk the aisles of SuperTarget –seeking a clone of their baby’s favorite Korean pacifier.
If not –if your child, like mine, enters  toddlerhood with a mouthful of teeth and a connoisseur’s appreciation for the nuances of each Perfect Paci in her collection—at least you’ll be able to sleep at night. Literally. And you’ll save yourself the ignonimity of explaining to garage-sale shoppers why you are off-loading a small fortune in new (but not Perfect) pacifiers at 50 cents a pair.

This is it.

This is what it looked like yesterday afternoon when I finished printing:

That's 1,150 pages of paper (two copies of one manuscript) and one electronic copy on the tiny USB drive perched on top.

This is what it tooked like this morning:

1,150 pieces of paper, three boxes, bubble wrap, packing tape, and one tiny memory stick weigh 14 lbs.  I had two choices. They could fly it to Nebraska for delivery tomorrow, Wednesday, for $106.95. Or they could drive it there for delivery Thursday for $12.95. After living with this project since 2006, opting for two day delivery to save $96 was not hard!


It was fitting that Mercy was my companion for the big send-off. More than any of the other girls, Mercy has shared her mommy with this book. Until about a year ago when I entered the intense writing phase, the last hour of my evening before her bedtime belonged to Mercy. Spending time alone with Mercy recharges my batteries almost as well as time alone with a good book. But Mercy, at seven, still finds mommy time better than almost anything else.

Our evening time alone together goes back about five years, to when Mercy was two and began talking well enough to tell me she was always afraid of losing me. Not unexpected when you've lost both your first mother and your foster mother by the time you're five and half months old. Her little heart had very early settled on a univeral truth: if you love someone, one day they will hand you to a stranger and walk away.

So Mercy tried mighily hard not to fall in love with her next mother. But she couldn't help it and by about age two she was panicked with the thought that because she loved me, she would lose me, too. So our "mommy time" was born: undivided-attention time, zero competition from siblings time, whatever-Mercy-wanted time. Over time, and with lots of time, her heart healed. In the process, Mercy and I developed an unusually close relationship.

For the past year, Mercy has given her mommy time back to me. After 8:30 PM is the only time our house approaches "quiet" or any of those other adjectives people usually associate with writing time. So rather than curling up with me on the couch with a stack of books, Mercy has brought her books to me --most recently, my Kindle on which she is reading Sara Crewe -- and curled up on the carpet by my desk chair and has read, or worked on a puzzle, or played Animal Logic until bedtime while I worked. Then after a break for tucking-in, I came back to my desk and worked  on the book until long after everyone in the house was asleep.


Tending the printer off and on for two days, I began taking mouse-sized bites at the pile of chaos occupying the other half of the basement: last season's clothes, next season's beach toys, all the books and games that don't fit on the shelves, 90% of the home school stuff, Joy's extra equipment, and everything else requiring a thoughful decision. Sunday night I was having so much fun digging, sorting, and throwing that several times I forgot to feed the printer until it stopped whiring long enough to get my attention.

One of my finds was a bag full of children's books from my mom, a book lover and inveterate thrift store shopper. (Once, Mercy told me, when Nana took her shopping at Goodwill, "Nana got losted. But she wasn't really losted. She was in the books.") From their depth in the pile, I guessed Nana gave us the bag last fall. I spot-read each book and dealt it onto one of four piles in front of me. The last book in the bag nearly landed on Joy's pile because the colorful pictures and the rollicking rhymes were sure to make her laugh. But then I noticed the author was Mary Ann Hoberman, the author of the book that made Mercy fall in love with poetry, The Llama Who Had No Pajama. So I transfered You Read to Me, I'll Read to You to Mercy's pile.


Are you done yet?
                                         I will be soon.
Are you done yet?
                                         There's almost room...  
To read to me?
                                         For one last note.
Written on my heart,
I hope.
                                         Yes, dear child.
                                          I'm finally through.

                    You'll read to me.
                     I'll read to you.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

If You're Happy And You Know It...


My mommy finished the book she started before I was born!

I'm almost four years old now.

It's about time!

How about a rousing verse of my favorite song?

"Hallalu, hallalu, hallalu, hallalujah!

Praise ye the Lord!"

Are you jumping up and down?

Everyone at my house is!

P.S. I was 15 months old when Mommy took these pictures. I had just learned to clap my hands.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The UrbanServant Care Calendar is staying open!

Dorothy mentioned today how much she has been blessed by everyone who has been a "wife" to their family during this extra-crazy season where they are back home, but camped out in a tiny house with ancient plumbing, malfunctioning kitchen appliances, and no kid-safe space in which to prepare meals from scratch.

By God's grace the house in Colorado will sell, the snow will melt, and  we will be joyfully helping move back in to their home across the street --just about the time the perennials she planted years ago begin blooming to welcome them back to their old house. But until then, I have extend the UrbanServant CareCalendar to facillitate everyone's ability to help.

If you'd like to bless them this way, the same CareCalendar link and password will continue to work. If you need the link or live too far away to make a meal, but would like to help some other way, please email me: zeman 1102 at usfamily dot net  Thanks for continuing to bless them!

Unwed Mothers in South Korea: a World Vision report

by Micheal Rhee, December 11, 2010

This is a short, fascinating glimpse into the lives of two Unwed Mothers in South Korea (in MP3 format) who have chosen to raise their children. Rhee helpfully puts their stories in the context of current statistics and social trends in Korea.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What's a Mom to Do?

an overview of the end of the series on Situational Anxiety in Adoption

This post isn't so much a teaser about how I plan to wrap up the series on situational anxiety in adoption as it is an outline for myself of points I've been mulling and want to make sure I touch on when I come back. I also know that when people are anxious, predictability is reassuring.

So  I'll be taking a few days off here at the end of the week. Tomorrow, the last pieces I need for the manuscript will arrive and I need to get it the whole thing off my desk and into the mail. Then I'll be back and finish up. When I do, I'll be addressing two things: what we who are experiencing SAA can do to minimize how it affects us, and what people in our support systems can do to help.

On our side, knowing that physical causes, elevated levels of stress hormones, underlie our feelings, we can target the hormones with physical strategies that reduce hormone levels. There are also cognitive strategies we can employ to help regulate the stress of the wait. I will also talk about the spiritual struggle that ensues for people of faith because that was the ground on which my own battle was won.

For people in our support group, understanding is the name of the game. We can hardly expect them to work intelligently to support us when, until now, few of us have been able to articulate the dynamics of our experience and we've felt afraid of the ramifications if we filled them in. But once they are in the know, I think the people around us will realize there are things they routinely do in ignorance that increase our struggle with SAA, and things they can routinely do to help us manage better.

Monday, February 14, 2011

And So It Begins

This is not a post on situational anxiety in adoption. I need a break!

Today we made it through the first part of an evaluation for Hope for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). I say "made it through" because I was anxious. (I know: ironic.) If you could hear my self talk, you would have heard me perseverating, "It is a medical diagnosis. It is a medical diagnosis. It is a medical diagnosis."

Kids like Joy get cerebral palsy when bleeding in the brain kills brain cells. Kids like Hope get FASD when alcohol in the brain kills brain cells. Joy was probably born with a typical brain (although very premature at 27 weeks); her brain damage occurred in the first few weeks after her birth. By the time Hope was 27 weeks gestational age, the brain damage was already done. She was born full-term and stunningly beautiful with the invisible birth defects that cause FASD.

The crazy truth is this: while we were "open" to almost everything else, we were trying to avoid two things: the condition known at that time as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and ADHD. We were waiting specifically for the referral of a waiting child, one with known special needs. We filled out a checklist asking if we were open to mild, moderate or severe levels of various needs. I felt so much guilt over checking "mild" for exposure to alcohol, thinking it elitist to be open to a child who was missing limbs, but to close our hearts to a child whose mother drank. What kind of faith is that?

We made that decision out of self-knowledge: my husband and I are both introverts. We thrive on peace in our home and harmony in relationships. So it just made (human) sense that we would not be a good match for a child with boundless energy, who doesn't sleep, is unpredictable, emotionally labile, and consistently provocative.


The intake form startled me. Not that it was nine pages long. Between our adoptions, Katie's infancy, and Joy's cerebral palsy, I'm an experienced paper worker. It startled me because it was the only form I've ever filled out that presumed the child in question was adopted. The first form to presume a child came to their family with history. And the first to recognize that history mattered.

Know what that makes the typical intake form? The embodiment of that worn out idea that nurture trumps nature. That love is a miracle cure.

It was also sad to be faced with the truth. Even though it had nothing to do with Hope's first mother's decision to place her for adoption, most kids with FASD are not being raised by their birth parents.


The testing itself was very simple. We were at the clinic a total of three hours. The Dr. (PhD) and I spent about 20 minutes talking. Then I took a pile of inventories (Vineland, BASC, and Executive Function) to the lobby to fill out while Hope and the doctor "played" (Hope's word) for about two hours total, broken by one break for a snack and several coloring breaks between sections of the neurodevelopmental exam.

Next step is to take her to another doctor for a physical exam. The second doctor will report to the first doctor, who will write a report, call my husband and I in to discuss a draft, then write a final report. At the rate this is going, it will have taken five to six months to get to a diagnosis.


God must have chuckled when He made sure our name was attached to Hope's referral in Korea and passed it on to our agency. Yes: God knew exactly what we wanted and He purposefully gave us something else. It wasn't because His hands were tied. It wasn't because He was napping on the rare occasions her mom accepted the offered glass of soju.

God knew exactly what was happening and even though He could have stopped it, He allowed it. God is faithful. He takes people to the cross every day.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Think Situtational Anxiety Is In Your Head?

It is. And it's in your bloodstream, too.

The feelings we experience as situational anxiety during the adoption process are caused by elevated levels of stress hormones.

I said at the beginning of this series that my only real qualification for speaking to this subject is that I've "been there, done that." However even having been a chemistry major for a while in college does not qualify me to speak with any authority on the biochemistry of situational anxiety.

The good news is that you don't have to take my word for it.

The first half of this article How Your Brain Responds to Stress will give you an overview of the biochemistry of anxiety and will supply keywords you can use to conduct your own survey of the research on this subject. The body of literature is vast so you can keep your research monkey happy for months popping stress studies like bananas. Good news if you have along wait ahead of you :).

If you find the language in that one too technical, this 2003 article in Newsweek by Geoffry Cowley and Claudia Kalb Our Bodies, Our Fears discusses how a wide range of anxieties effects our bodies.

Remember: while the triggers for the situational anxiety we experience during the adoption process are unique to adoption, the anxiety itself is the same anxiety common to the human experience. The biochemistry is the same, whether the subject being studied was job stress, chronic illness, or living in a war zone.

Pay close attention to the research on the effects of chronically elevated levels of cortisol on the mind and body. People who experience higher (more handicapping) levels of SA during the adoption process are typically in this category. The name of the game is trying to manage your level of stress hormones to keep them in a range where your parasympathetic nervous system can kick in and do its job of helping restore biochemical balance (making you feel better, or at least more functional).

You want to do everything you can to avoid more or less constant levels of elevated anxiety hormones, especially if you are facing a long wait, because the the hormonal effects snowball and push you into 'chronically elevated' territory (the island in my story). Once you are on the island, it is hard to get off.

It is a quite different to find yourself on the island with a travel call two weeks in your future. In the short-wait scenario, the end of the wait acts like a Magic Eraser: the situational anxiety seems to vanish with little lingering effects.

But when you understand that physical chemistry underlies the feelings we experience as SAA, it is easy to see why higher, chronically elevated levels of stress hormones can't be flicked off like a light switch at the end of the wait. The biochemistry doesn't work that way. So you don't want to go to the island with six months left on your clock. And if you find yourself on your way there, you can recognize what is happening and make some course corrections while you still can.

Where I'm Coming From

At the end of my last post on Situational Anxiety in Adoption, I made a rather strong statement:

"I, for one, am tired of the idea that this is just the way adoption is; we all  experience it, we all live through it; we just have to do the best we can to make it through. With this series of posts on SAA, I am rejecting that idea. Nobody should have to enter the potentially most challenging phase of adoption, the transition of the new child into the family, emotionally exhausted by the wait."

I don't know about you, but that surprised me. It didn't surprise me that the act of writing pulled together ideas that were not previously fully formed; writing does that for me. Instead, the strength of my feelings surprised me.

So I've been pondering, Why? Why, seven years after my greatest struggle with SAA and PADS, is it coming together now?

It is true: we have seen a recent spike in higher levels of SAA and I've been spending more of my time supporting waiting families. But that that isn't the main reason.

The main reason is that, thanks to God and the children who have become my daughters through the emotional labor of adoption, I'm at a different place in my life than I was seven years ago. Until very recently, I believed, "...this is just the way adoption is; we all  experience it, we all live through it; we just have to do the best we can to make it through,."

The shift in my thinking is typified by two things that happened in therapy this week. Hope and Joy have concurrent OT appointments twice a week and I spend the hour shuttling back and forth between mirror-windows that allow me to see and hear what is going on in both rooms. Then at the end of the session, I debrief with the girls' therapists.

Joy has the quadriplegic form of cerebral palsy. While her food repertoire continues to expand, she has not outgrown a rather crazy way of eating crunchy food like crackers. So Thursday I asked Leah (her OT, who is also a feeding specialist) to watch her eat a graham cracker and tell me what she thought. Leah immediately saw what Joy was doing and confirmed it by tucking a dum-dum sucker into Joy's cheek back by her molars. Joy could not lick a sucker presented to the side of her tongue. So she also can't use her tongue to retrieve and swallow food like crackers that gets pasty when chewed. (Imagine what your tongue does to get peanut butter off your molars. It's that motion.)

A few minutes later I was debriefing with Hope's OTs. We've been working on two things: figuring out what helps Hope calm down her body's "engine" when it is running too fast, and trying to sort out her widely variable ability to pay attention. Hope is beginning to relax and trust her therapists now and is more free to be herself instead of on best behavior. I saw through the window that Hope was having a classic "Hope" morning and was curious to see what her therapists thought.

"What would you think," one asked, "of the hypothesis that Hope has a much easier time paying attention to things than to people?" It was an epiphany for me. Hope struggles much less to sustain an appropriate level of attention to tasks like putting together a puzzle or completing a page of handwriting or math (especially if the room is not busy) than she does listening to a story read aloud or following verbal instructions.

I walked out of the clinic buoyed by the findings that one daughter can't move her tongue sideways and the other (who, ironically, is very social) can't pay attention to people.

Am I crazy that these things make me happy?

No. I am rejoicing in the fact I'm not crazy. Because now that we know why Joy eats crackers like a chipmunk, it is easy to see that after couple of months of dum-dum therapy at home (we're going to entice her tongue to move sideways to lick suckers) she will be able to feed herself crispy/pasty foods. And Hope's finding is a clear indicator of something we've suspected: auditory processing differences.

The brain damage that underlies CP is permanent. But some of the impairing effects can be overcome. The brain damage that underlies Hope's behaviors is also permanent. Some manifestations will always be with us. But auditory processing glitches often improve with therapy.

Do you see? Every time we find a new piece to a puzzle we sort it into one of two categories: have to live with it (short of Heaven, Joy will never walk independently) or potentially can be remedied (she can be taught to lateralize her tongue).

So that's where I'm coming from with the series on Situational Anxiety in Adoption. I have mentally moved SAA from the "have to live with it" to the "potentially can be remedied" category. Situational Anxiety will always be with us. But why should we just live with the handicaps that come with higher levels of SAA?

Joy doesn't have to eat crackers like a chipmunk forever and we don't have to settle for having our adoption journeys hijacked by the biochemistry of situational anxiety.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

In Situational Anxiety's Wake

While garden variety situational anxiety is a normal part of the adoption process, prolonged situational anxiety during the wait can have negative effects which linger after the child comes home. That's why learning to cope effectively is so important. Our goal should be to minimize the SAA experience to, if possible,  prevent it from morphing into the forms that may have post-situational consequences. In this post I want to address three of theses lasting effects:
  • externalized anxiety (anger)
  • internalized anxiety (depression)
  • future anxiety (in subsequent adoptions)

Adoption agencies are acutely aware of the first aspect: the potential effect on their agency's reputation. This danger seems to arrise when waiters (often men) externalize their anxiety. In the absence of sufficient information and in the presence of the paranoia that is a hallmark of SAA, ordinarily rational people may impute all manner of untrue motivations to the people perceived to be in power in International adoption: the U.S. and the International partner agencies, and/or the governments of both countries.

The irony is that the client is typically convinced that he (or she) is righteously angry and crusading to expose injustice while the misinformation and untrue allegations may actually undermine legitimate child welfare efforts, including the process that will bring the child home. Agencies have been quick to grasp the fact that while these manifestations of SAA may be transient for the client, the effects of slander on agencies and their  programs could take years to ameliorate.

Far more common in my circles (mostly populated by women) is internalized situational anxiety. Higher levels of internalized SAA, especially when prolonged over time, too often become Situational Depression (like the mom from Alaska in my story, who had an extreme case).  I am not aware of any research investigating the potential correlation between SAA and Post Adoption Depression Syndrome (PADS). My impression is that people who experience typical levels of SAA are no more prone to PADS than average. But I suspect that if researchers worked backwards from a pool of people who experience PADS, they might find that many in that group experienced higher and/or more prolonged than typical levels of SAA during their wait.

I will be returning to the possibly carry-over between SAA and PADS in a separate post. But before I move on to the third lingering effect of SAA, I want to observe this connection: it seems as if externalized anxiety in men is often triggered by internalized anxiety in their wives. Husbands observe depression in the woman they love, and the effects this has on their family, and get angry at the bad guy who beat her up: the system.

The third long-lasting effect of SAA is that parents who experience higher levels during one adoption seem prone to developing higher levels earlier and/or with little provocation during subsequent adoptions.  For better or worse, it seems parents tend to revisit the emotional territory mapped during their earlier visits to the isle of situational anxiety, picking up their beach-walk at the point they left off last time.

So although the short-term feelings of situational anxiety vanish when the situation changes (temporarily assuaged by information, or erased by news that the child is coming home), the long-term consequences of the experience may shadow families formed via adoption, and the adoption community at large, for years.

I, for one, am tired of the idea that this is just the way adoption is; we all  experience it, we all live through it; we just have to do the best we can to make it through. With this series of posts on SAA, I am rejecting that idea. Nobody should have to enter the potentially most challenging phase of adoption, the transition of the new child into the family, emotionally exhausted by the wait.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Chicken and the Egg

This series of posts on situational anxiety in adoption (SAA) needs to take a turn toward the practical: how to recognize SAA and how to cope with it. But before I get too far away from my posts developing the things that contribute to SAA, I want to register my opinion on the question, "Do Internet forums foster SAA?"

That's the nice way of asking the question. The not-so-nice way is to say: "Can't you take a perfectly sane waiting mom and make her insane by feeding her a steady diet of other people's paranoia? Don't you make people worry about things they otherwise would not know might be of concern?"

I can speak to that from personal experience. My earliest wait was eight years ago in what we now call, "the dark ages." Before Internet forums existed. Back then, my agency's mantra was: "No news is good news." Roughly translated that meant: "If you don't hear from us, your case is proceeding as expected. We'll call you if something changes."

Much later I learned that a Yahoo ListServ for Korean adoptive families existed at the time. My agency also had an IRL support group for waiting families (International and domestic combined). It met monthly and I attended once out of curiosity. But really felt on top of the wait and didn't go back.

The first wait didn't bother me much because my expectations about the process of adoption were just right: zero. I didn't know enough to have expectations. My naivete kept me comfortable. As the saying goes, what I didn't know couldn't hurt me.

That's the general idea behind the supposition that Internet forums induce situational anxiety: in the absence of information, clients must be blissfully ignorant.

But ignorance is not bliss. The form of situational anxiety that is ubiquitous to adoption is triggered by the process, not the support group.  It is a little like thinking that a recovering alcoholic would struggle less if she never attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings because there, others might give her the idea that recovery is challenging.

Which is better, to have an ignorant client (one unconnected to other adopting families) quietly despairing that she has lost her grip on reality, feeling doubly alone because she is too paranoid to tell her social worker? Or a client in similar circumstances who is connected enough to have someone with whom they can confide, "I think I'm going crazy. Literally," and hear back, "I know. I felt the same way."

So no: Internet forums are not the shell that incubates the chick called situational anxiety. However I believe that clients who are more prone to experiencing higher levels of situational anxiety are more likely to seek out Internet forums because such forums are one tool people use to manage the anxiety they are already experiencing --before they ever sign on for the first time.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Postcard from New York City

Dear SeonKyoung and HeeKyoung,

Happy New Year! My husband took a walk in Central Park in New York City this morning and sent us this photo.

It is one of the most famous cities in America. But I have never been there. Please come visit us and we will visit New York together! Your younger sisters would love to see you again. We miss you!


Joy's omma

Nice Place to Visit But...

I Wouldn't Want to Live There

There is nothing new about waiting in adoption. To be honest, while I wish eduction on situational anxiety had been part of my pre-adoption education classes at CHSFS eight years ago, at that time, the wait between referral and travel for families in the Korea program was 8-12 weeks. So while families had time to visit the island I described in my Story, it was short trip. They had just enough time to bump up their stores of Vitamin D and get a healthy tan before their travel call came.

The new thing (relatively speaking) in the Korean adoption world is that while a few parents are still blessed to travel 10-12 weeks after referral acceptance, the majority know at the time they accept their referral, that they will be waiting 11 months to bring home their child. In some cases (sibling referrals) families tack another 2-4 months onto the 11.

Families are now living on the island and I am not aware that anything has changed in equipping families to survive in that climate.

Unfortunately, unlike me as the author of that story, it is not possibly for any agency to simply take pity, relent, and unite these families with their children more quickly. (Believe me: if it was possible, families would travel in the minimum amount of time required for the U.S. and Korea to complete the paperwork.) But the issues pushing the wait to travel to 11 months are matters of Korean sovereignty. Any significant change in the system, if it comes, will have to come from inside Korea.

That leaves families trying to cope with a very long wait. I feel their pain because I've been there.

At the beginning of this series, I mentioned that my husband and I have attempted to adopt five children and have brought home three. Despite the 8-12 week average travel window back in 2003, I waited 11 months to bring home our first child. The baby we brought home, Mercy, was actually our second child because at the last minute, we lost our first referral. The quota cut-off fell the same week we accepted the first time, so we were also caught in the quota. We accepted in July, with the quota backlog, expected to travel the following February, accepted our second referral in March, and brought Mercy home in June.

The details of our first loss are not mine to share. But even without disclosing them, I imagine some  may think: "Well, of course you experienced high levels of situational anxiety! Losing a referral would be traumatic and after that, I you must have wondered if Mercy would come home or if the same thing would happen again!" That is right. But it would be wrong to infer that situations like that are so rare that not many families experience dysfunctionally high levels of situational anxiety during their wait.

Yes: the precise circumstances of our story are rare. That is why I assumed for so many years that my experience (it hit me  much harder than it did my husband) was isolated. But now that I've known hundreds of adopting moms in circumstances that allow us to be fairly candid, I believe situational anxiety during the adoption process is a universal experience, and dysfunctional levels of situational anxiety are common --even among women who do not experience a specific trauma like losing a referred child.

I believe that is true because we're just now starting to see travel calls for the first families who had to wait eleven months to travel. The wait is like a roller coaster ride. A short ride with a few big dips is enough to make some riders queasy. But a longer ride with many smaller dips and rises can have the same effect. The majority of Korea program families now hold tickets to a very long roller coaster ride.

Recall that the factors that predispose waiters to higher levels of situational anxiety are not limited to adoption. Life does not withhold its ordinary stresses and surprises just because a family is already burdened with a long adoption wait. Eleven months is plenty of time for a lot of 'life' to happen. It is simply no longer good enough to assume that most waiters will not experience high levels of situational anxiety. We are already seeing it. The question is: what are we going to do about it?

If we cannot change the circumstances that send people to the island, then we must do a better job helping them cope with living there.


Twelve of our closest friends stopped in to share our morning.

It's so good to have them home!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Welcome to the Island, Part II

At the end of my last post, I left two adoptive moms alone on an island. But I couldn't stand the misery. So I gave them their travel calls and sent them home to Alaska and to Iceland with their children.

I'm happy to report, a year later, both are doing well. Even the mom from Alaska. Because she didn't have skin cancer. She only thought she did. She had sunburn, much more severe than her friend from Iceland. Both moms came to the island at the same time and from similar circumstances. But there was one significant difference.

In Iceland, as part of the pre-adoption preparation series, parents were required to attend a class called "What to Expect When You're Waiting." Adoption professionals and a panel of seasoned parents talked about the liklihood and effects of anitcipated exposure to much more sun than anyone was accustomed to. They talked about how to cope with tropical weather and demonstrated the hands full of sunscreen it takes to minimize the effects of constant sun exposure. They also discussed the warning signs of over-exposure and what to do when parents feel like they are stuck on an island and can't get off.

The mom from Alaska was prepared ahead of time for many other important things: honoring racial and cultural diversity; possible open relationships with birth family; the range of ways children attach to parents and parents attach to kids. But blindsided by situational anxiety during her wait to travel, the best she could do was reach for a coping tool that pre-dated adoption: sunscreen. But having spent her entire life in a climate where "wearing sunscreen" meant a dab on her index finger wiped on her nose and cheeks, in the tropics she faithfully applied sunscreen many dabs-on-one-finger at a time over her whole body. Her belief that she was wearing sufficient sunscreen was incompatible with the most logical explanation for her patchy red skin: sunburn. So her mind passed over that possibility. She became convinced she had skin cancer because that explanation matched what she observed with her eyes and what she was experiencing emotionally: that something was very wrong.

Remember: nothing was really wrong except that she was unprepared for the stresses of a very different environment. But no one had cautioned her that her everyday coping skills might not be suited for the places her adoption journey might take her. She had not been given the opportunity, while she was still in her right mind, to develop a contingency plan. She could not calm her anxious thoughts by reminding herself that under the circumstances, it was normal to feel helpless, out of control and vulnerable. Having no idea that her feelings, in this case, were misleading, she concluded she was dying.

The irony is that studies show that people who adopt Internationally are older, better educated and more highly employed than average. That means those who may be most likely to find themselves transported to the island may be the very same people who are less equipped to cope with it. Let me take each of those points apart:
  • Older. It has been longer since someone else (like a parent) had more control over us than we have over ourselves. We're used to being independent. Adoption makes us dependent. But worse than being dependent upon someone we know, like a parent, adoption makes us dependent on relative strangers (those in the adoption system) and complete strangers (in a foreign culture overseas).
  • Better Educated. Having a graduate degree is completely ordinary in International adoption circles. (My apologies here to domestic adopters. This might be true for you, too. I'm limiting my statement to the research I have read, not suggesting domestic adopters are second class!) We naturally assume that if we read a dozen books, attend ten lectures and scour the Internet for information so thoroughly that we can predict the links Google will recommend, we will have mastered the subject.
  • More highly employed. This is closely related to better educated. We are accustomed to running the show. People report to us. Others depend on us. Systems operate because we designed them and because we see that everything required happens. When the system stops working well, we change something and it improves again. We are very good at what we do. (All of these things are true even for those of us who do not work outside the home. The proof is in our home studies!) Adoption places us at the mercy of someone else's system. We don't have enough information to appreciate why the system is set up as it is. Our ability to obtain such information is limited and our ability to effect change in the system is even more limited.
Thus far I have identified two things that may make some waiting adoptive parents vulnerable to higher levels of Situational Anxiety during the adoption wait:
  • Lack of awareness of and education about SAA.
  • Older/better educated/highly employed
But there are other factors that, in my experience, predispose some waiters to higher levels of SAA:
  • Coincidental life events like: relocation, death or prolonged illness of a family member, temporary separation from a spouse (like due to a job assignment, frequent business travel, or deployment) ; job stress (for self or spouse)
  • Having had a previous traumatic adoption experience (either experienced a high level of SAA or experienced other trauma like losing a referred child after acceptance)
  • Program changes (and the number of such changes) which significantly readjust expectations during the wait.
  • Longer wait times.
That last point prompted this series on SAA and I will devote the next post to it.

Welcome to the Island, Part I

a story about situational anxiety in adoption

Once there were two moms. One lived in Alaska. The other lived in Iceland. They were both pros at things like covering exposed skin against the bitter winter cold and turning on headlights to drive in the mid-morning winter darkness. Neither woman realized she did these things. They just did as everyone did at that latitude on the globe.

Both moms wanted to adopt a child. Each had Internet access, Amazon delivery and friends who had adopted. Each did her homework and came away assured that adoption was a wonderful way to build her family. Living on separate continents, of course, the two moms used different home study agencies. But each completed her agency's pre-adoption preparation requirements and passed the home study with flying colors. Each receive a referral almost immediately. Now the real fun was about to begin: the wait to travel to bring home the child.

According to their home studies, both moms were as ready as they could be for the "journey" --to use the word professionals used to describe the adoption process. But neither one guessed that "journey" wasn't a metaphor.

One day, several months into her wait to travel, the mom from Alaska woke up suddenly at 5:00 AM to the uncomfortable sight of too much sun streaming into her room. Sunlight so bright she had to shade her eyes against the glare. Sunlight so warm she felt hot in her winter pajamas. When she got up to pull the shade, her feet hit a title floor warmed by the sun. That was her second clue she wasn't at home any more. The third clue was the view she saw through the floor to ceiling windows: sugar white sand and turquoise blue water framed by palm trees.

"Wow," she thought to herself. "They said we should expect the unexpected. I never expected the adoption journey would take me to a place like this. But I really want to adopt and I don't think I have a lot of choice. So I'll try to make the best of it while I'm here."


Later that morning, strolling on the beach, the mom from Alaska met the mom from Iceland. It turned out that the Icelander had also been surprised to fall asleep at home in deep winter and wake up this morning in the tropics. They laughed out loud as they traded stories, finding out how much they had in common.

"I have no idea how the people who live on this island manage," the mom from Iceland said, rubbing her hands up and down her bare arms. "It feels so strange to have the wind on my skin, you know? It is warm wind and I guess I should feel grateful. But it is irritating. It makes me want to grab a sweater to keep the wind off. But then I'd be way too hot!"

"I know," the mom from Alaska agreed. "And what's with these huge bottles of sun screen? At home I only use it on my nose and have to throw away a small tube half-full because it always expires before I use it all. Here they must go through liters of sunscreen every year. There's so much exposed skin to cover! It took me longer to put it on than it took me to take my shower! No wonder time runs so slow on this island:  it has to because it takes so long just to get out the door!"

The two moms walked the beach together daily sharing stories. But as the months wore on, the mom from Alaska found herself laughing less and less. Things she could joke about in the beginning were really wearing on her now. But she tried to nod and smile a lot and bear up as well as her friend from Iceland.

"And what about having to wash the sand off before you step inside?" the Icelander complained one morning. "There is sand everywhere. It was novel the first day or two. But now I'm just sick and tired of tracking sand wherever I go. I mean at home we just pop off our boots at the door, step into our slippers and we're good to go in the house. Here, I bring the outdoors inside all the time."

The mom from Alaska stopped walking and lowered her voice. "There is even sand in my bed," she confided. First we have to wait until 10:00 PM for the sun to go down. Then just when I'm hoping I can get a little sleep before the sun comes back up so bright and early, I find there's sand in my sheets. Again. I get up and shake the sheets out. But I never can get it all. I get up and shake the sheets again. But I just can't escape the sand. I can't sleep. I'm exhausted."

"I know," the other mom said, giving her a hug. "There is sand in my bed, too. I don't know how people get throught this journey, but they do. We just have to hang in there a little longer. Then it will be our turn to get our child and we'll be out of here. Just think of it: HOME! Except this winter we'll each have small snowsuit hanging by the door. And little tiny mittens drying in the rack by the fireplace..." She stopped dreaming aloud because she realized her friend was sobbing.

The Icelander hugged her friend closer. "It is going to be okay, you know. We are going to make it! I mean have you realized we've even started adapting to this climate?" She told a joke on herself. "It has been weeks since I killed the car battery leaving the headlights on during the day! And you haven't forgotten your sun hat in more than a month. We're getting good at this island thing! We'll get through it together!"

The mom from Alaska shook her head. When she lifted her eyes, her friend saw something deeply troubled there.

"Thanks for trying. Really," she said through her tears. "You'll make it. I know you will. But I'm never going to see my baby."

"Of course you'll..."

"No," the mom from Alaska cut her off. "I won't. I have skin cancer." The rest of her story spilled out. "There is a little more every day. The red patches are everywhere now: irregular, with spreading margins. The lesions bleed and scab. I have all the classic symptoms. It is why the sand hurts so much at night. I just can't keep sand out of the wounds... It's killing me. I can feel it in my bones. There's no hospital here so I can't do anything about it except lay awake all night worrying... How will my husband do without me? Will they even let him bring the baby home if I'm gone? And my poor baby... he didn't do anything to deserve losing his first mother and now he's losing me and I've never even met him... I figure if I can just hang on until my son comes home, maybe they'll let my husband keep him and our baby won't have to wait for a family all over again..."

The mom from Iceland was almost speechless. "I'm so sorry," she said, fighting back her own tears. "I had no idea you have cancer...all this time together and I never guessed. You've hid it so well. You've been so brave... So you had cancer before? It went away so they agreed you could adopt? But now you're afraid your cancer is back?"

The weeping mom shook her head. "No. I never had cancer before. I first noticed it after we got here...My husband is a doctor. I'm sure he could have helped me. But he doesn't even know... you know how isolated we are here..."

The Icelander started problem-solving on behalf of her distraught friend. "How about that special satellite phone they gave us? They said it was pre-programmed to call our social worker. My social worker has always been so helpful...well, I mean she was so helpful, during the home study and all. I haven't talked to her since we got here... But I bet your social worker can get you off the island, get you to a doctor..."

"I can't call my Social Worker!" Alaska Mom said, aghast that her friend from Iceland didn't get it. "That's exactly why I can't tell her! They'll take me off the island for sure! They'd never send a baby home to a mom who has cancer. My husband has wanted to be a daddy for so long.... And my baby would be stuck in bureaucratic limbo for another year at least while they tried to find him another family. And by then he'd be so old, would anyone want to adopt him? I am his only way out of the system...."

to be continued

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Beast Has a Name, Part II

At the end of my last post in this series I shared that when my former Social Worker suggested that  the constellation of anxieties many of us experience during our adoption waits was a form of situational anxiety, my friends and I were skeptical. Situational Anxiety is a normal part of the human experience. We know that because we have all experienced it:
  • feeling nervous before the first day of class at a new school
  • butterflies in the stomach before a job interview
  • lying awake the night before our driver's license exam wondering if we will be able to parallel park
  • the sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach when we see the lights of a police car in our rear view mirror 
  • compulsively cleaning before our first home study interview

We also have all experienced the hallmark characteristic of Situational Anxiety: typically, it passes.
  • We find the new school isn't hard to navigate and we begin making new friends.
  • The job interview either goes well, or it doesn't and we move on to the next one. 
  • We successfully parallel park and get our drivers license.
  • The police car passes us in pursuit of somebody else.
  • Our four year old shows the social worker the "junk" closet and she laughs that she has one of those at her house, too.

We were skeptical that "Situational Anxiety" accurately named our experience because SA is so normal. In contrast, what we were feeling was so abnormal that we wondered if we were literally going crazy. Yet, my friends and I agreed that the feelings we experienced while waiting were transient:
  • The referral call came and we bounced from anxious to elated in the five seconds it took for it to sink in that this was THAT! call.
  • The favorable report from the International Adoption Clinic cut off the fear that we might not be able to accept a referral.
  • The long-awaited update reassured us that our child was developing as expected.
  • The National Visa Center computers confirmed action on our case at the Embassy.
  • The travel call came, our child came home, and our deepest fears vanished like steam hitting dry air.
In the end, we concluded the diagnosis of Situational Anxiety was accurate if we readjusted our definition of "normal."  If "normal" is defined as the state that most people spend most of their time in, then adoption is not normal. Adoption is exceptional. The situational anxiety we experience when adopting is unique, but normal to this exceptional experience.

Our sense of self and our sense of self-competence are often based on things we do routinely and do well. We each have also developed coping mechanisms perfectly suited for stresses with which we routinely cope. The adoption  process can catapult us into a completely foreign place: a place where the competencies we've developed in our everyday world not only may be useless, but may in fact get us in trouble. Adoption can force us to cope with things we've never before had to cope with even if we have adopted before because each adoption is a unique experience.

That's why situational anxiety is normative in adoption. It is to be expected when we are temporarily transplanted out of our comfort zone, out of our realm of competence to a new, strange place where we have little control and little experience coping.

In the next two posts, I'll tell you a story to show how knowledge (or the lack of it) about SAA  affects two different moms embarking on the adoption journey.

*To navigate the posts in this series is to click on the "Situational Anxiety in Adoption" tag in the label cloud on the right side bar. To start reading from the beginning, scroll to the end and read from the bottom up.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

My Unsung Hero

Yesterday was one of those days that has become saddly familiar over the past few years. A Saturday. The house was quiet. Empty. Nearly still. Execept for the sounds of Daisy gnawing her bone at my feet and the clatter of my hands at the keyboard correcting typos and clarifying sentences.

But there was, periodically, a "ding" as something landed in my email box. A "ding" that made me smile because I knew that when I reached the end of the paragraph and toggled my Inbox button, I would find something like this:

 And this:

 And this:

Many Saturdays my husband takes the girls out to do something fun: go to the beach, go to the zoo, go ice skating, or yeseterday, go to the Mall of America. It buys me a few precious hours of quiet time alone with my writing, the most efficient work time in my week. But my husband knows that progress comes with a price: I miss out on things like the first time Mercy swam underwater with her eyes open; Hope fully enjoying herself on the playground where it is okay for her "engine" to run on high; their first rollercoaster ride at MoA.

So he sends me pictures from his phone. Every single one of them buoys me up, the same way all of us girls are thrilled when he's away on business and he emails a photo of the amazing bustle of Times Square where he happens to be standing at that very moment, or the sweep of the Golden Gate Bridge as his taxi passes over it.

Every one of my Saturday email photos points to the same golden thing: soon I will be done. Soon I will be there, with them, taking snapshots for my heart with my own eyes.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Beast Has a Name

Five years ago my hands were full with our toddlers Mercy and Hope. So full, my husband and I imagined we wouldn't be adopting again. At that time, I was part of a small private forum of adoptive moms of Korean children that has since disbanded. One night, a brave mom who was in the middle of a long wait to travel (in those days, the quota backlog had doubled the 10-12 week wait to into 20-24 weeks) confessed that she though she was going crazy. Not metaphorically. Literally. Crazy. One by one, each of us admitted that we had felt the same way during our wait for a referral, or our wait for travel, or both.

It scared us that the experience was almost universal among us. Yet none of us had ever discussed our feelings with our Social Worker (SW) because we shared the (until then) unspoken fear that if we were honest, our agency would be compelled to amend our home study to "not currently fit to parent." Who would want to send a child home to a crazy mother?

I was the only person in the group who was not in process. With our adoptions finalized, I figured there could not be much harm in calling up my SW, admitting I had felt these feelings in the past, and on behalf of my friends, asking what it was.

With their permission, I talked to my SW. She was (politely) surprised. Of course she understood that waiting was stressful; she was the facilitator for our agency's IRL (in real life) support group for waiting families. But, she said, she had not guessed from my demeanor during our adoptions how I was feeling and had no idea it might be as common as it seemed to be among my adopting friends because no client had ever confided it to her. No, she didn't know what it was, but asked my permission to discuss it with some of the counselors in the post adoption department and get back to me.

This is a composite list similar to the one I shared with her that day. Few people, at that time, experienced all of these feelings during their wait. Those who experience some, did so to varying degrees. Yet these features all seemed common:
  • paranoia
  • doubts about or inability to trust adoption professionals or the adoption system
  • compulsions, obsessions, rituals ('stalking': forums, phones, mail, information)
  • anger at the adoption system and people in the system
  • savior convictions focused on our child or children in the system in general (alone against the word)
  • numbness or detachment or alienation from self or support system or process or referred child
  • insomnia (the inability to stop racing thoughts) and fatigue
  • chronic anxiety
  • depression
  • helplessness, hopelessness, despondency
  • feeling out of control
  • acute self-awareness of irrationality, feeling out of character or like we're losing our grip on reality
  • (or the opposite: denial that anything is atypical even when others express concern)
  • the feelings waxed in the absence of information, and waned (temporarily) with news

My social worker called back a few days later. The consensus of the counselors was that we were describing situational anxiety.

situational anxiety
Etymology: L, situs, location
a state of apprehension, discomfort, and anxiety precipitated by the experience of new or changed situations or events. Situational anxiety is not abnormal and requires no treatment; it usually disappears as the person adjusts to the new experience. (Mosby's Medical Dictionary, 8th edition. © 2009, Elsevier.)

I recalled a few examples from college. "Really?" I asked my SW, not quite confident of my associations. "Situational anxiety as in stage fright? Like anxiety before taking a big test?" "Yes," she said. "Like that. Except in this case, the 'big test' is adoption."

I thanked her and took the idea back to my friends. At first we were skeptical because our feelings seemed much too intense to be as ordinary as situational anxiety. But after talking about it for awhile, we agreed that it did fit for reasons I'll discuss in the next post.

Once the beast had a name, we had some power: we started investigating the ins and outs of situational anxiety and figured out that we were not helpless; we could cope.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Situational Anxiety in Adoption

It is that time of year: the ground hog didn't see his shadow, portending an early spring. Unfortunately, the shadow of Situational Anxiety lays heavily on the lanscape of the Korean adoption world. And with many families expecting an 11 month- wait between referral and travel*, this could be a very long winter.

So I'm taking the occasion to start a series on Situational Anxiety in Adoption, which I'll abbreviate SAA. While PADS, or Post Adoption Depression, is becoming well known in the adoption world, its twin, the situational anxiety that often accompanies the wait for referral and/or travel, while far more common, is hardly recognized. I'd like to see that changed: waiting families empowered with information about what it is, how it manifests itself, what that looks like from the inside and to outsiders, and how to survive it.

I am not a professional. I'm just a mom who, over the past seven years, has attempted five adoptions and has brought home three children. So my only real qualification is: been there, done that. I would be thrilled if adoption professions grasped just how common and how devastating SAA can be and would start systematically educating adopting families ahead of time. Until that day, I'll do what bloggers do: tell my story and trust it will reach someone who needs to hear it.

*The asterisk is good new/bad news. With my agency, CHSFS, there is currently almost no wait for boy referrals from Korea. But the wait to travel after referral for many Korea Program families is currently at 11 months. Overall, with the possibility of a year between homestudy completion and placement for boys, the outlook hasn't changed a lot. But families are experiencing the situational anxiety as more challenging, for reasons that I'll discuss in future posts.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

OT Fun I: Bubbles

It is impossible to attend therapy sessions seven times a week and not pick up some ideas for fun that I never before considered therapeutic. Need to expend some energy indoors? You'll need:
  • a large container
  • a squirt of dish soap
  • some water
  • a straw
  • towels
Put a squirt of dish soap in each container. Add 1-2 cups water. Hand each child a straw and let them blow.

When the bubbles fill up the container, use the straw to stir like crazy to pop the bubbles, then blow them up again.

Have  a bubble blowing race with a sibling if you have one handy.

When you are all done (this keeps Mercy and Hope occupied for about 20 minutes) use the towel to wipe up the water with big two-handed circles.

Believe it or not, this activity does not degenerate into a water fight because all the deep breathing required to blow bubbles is calming. It is also good oral-motor work for kids who need to strengthen mouth muscles.


Here's how today's bubble session ended. Mercy wiped up her own water, but not Hope's.

Hope, who was on her chair, complained, "But I WANT you to clean up my water! You're right down there on the floor and I can't reach my water from up here!"

Mercy: "You can get down on the floor, too. Wiping is good for us!"

Hope (grumbling): "You are NOT going to be a very good mother someday."

Mercy: "Why not?"

Hope: "Because GOOD mothers clean up after their kids. They don't make them do ALL their own work!"

It Just Makes Sense

I must still be in the newbie phase of homeschooling because I find myself still apologetic. After all, my husband and I are both products of public school systems, and as  he says, we both "came out just fine."

Yet almost every day, I find myself thinking: "Our family is so privileged to be able to do this. It just makes so much sense." Math is the thing I am marvelling over this week. The revelation: there are many different ways to learn math. Homeschooling gives me the freedom to teach math several different ways.

This is Hope doing math. I'm not sure if a bricks-and-mortar school she could get away with "grounding:" one leg curled up while the other is in contact with the floor, the posture in which she concentrates best. But posture aside, she decided that she wanted to do CalcuLadder just like Faith and Mercy. Hope wasn't deterred by the fact that she is only in Kindergarten and we don't expect her to do CalcuLadder (a supplementary program that drills  math facts) yet.

But Math-U-See has given Hope the confidence that using blocks, she can can solve any math question. So gamely sat down and accomplished what she wanted to do: a page of CalcuLadder using the Math-U-See blocks for computation.

Then there is Mercy, whose fondest wish since September has been to be able to do Teaching Textbooks Math on the computer just like Faith. To show us she was ready, Mercy did a few lessons of Faith's TT 5 (typically 5th grade) and got so many answers right that we agreed she could start Teaching Textbooks 3, which arrived on Monday. Mercy loves math so much she has done nine lessons in 3 days.

It is a pleasure to see my girls excited about learning. And it just makes sense to give each one exactly what she is ready for in the teaching style best suited to her learning style. Well, at least for Mercy and Hope. Faith insists her  learning style is "private school classroom." We'll see.