Thursday, September 6, 2007

Pact Camp: First Glimpses Out of the Race and Adoption Fog

This is part of a series of posts about our expereinces at a camp for families formed through transracial adoption.
Intro is Pact Camp: An Introduction
Part 1 is
The Information
Part 2 is Challenges on Planet Barnacle
Part 3 is First Glimpses Out of the Race and Adoption Fog

First Glimpses Out of the Race and Adoption Fog

Usually in an environment where I know no-one and know nothing, I keep my mouth shut. For the most part I did at Pact camp. But there was one conversation I really wanted to join in. The concept I was trying to communicate had to do with hearing someone else’s intentions. What I actually said had little to do with that and came out really wrong. Sounded dumb and wrong and clueless. And as I felt it all coming out wrong, my attempts to fix it went even more wrong. Finally I just stopped talking. But I’ve spent part of everyday berating myself for it.

I’ve reflected quite a bit on the shame and self-hatred that came out of that moment. And here’s what I think drives it. Bill and I wandered cluelessly into this world of transracial adoption – so completely steeped in our upper-middle class thrones of white and class privilege that we couldn’t even conceive of them. We just assumed we could give an African-American child everything they need. I am filled with anger and bitterness at our arrogance and at the system that so readily encouraged our uninformed plunge into this task for which we are so woefully unequipped – leaving our truly amazing adopted child at risk for so many degrees of hurt.

My moment of public abstruseness laid out for the room to see how much I don’t get it. How unprepared I am to meet some of Rosie’s most basic needs. I like to be organized, informed, tidy, protected. Having my ignorance bared for all to see shamed and horrified me.

But here’s the thing – now everyone knows the comprehensive levels of my cluelessness (including, importantly, me). Now I can be totally frank with the people in that essential room (and you who read this) that right now Rosie and our family are in trouble. And now I have the truth, tools and resources to begin creating a world in which Rosie can grow up supported in her very personal journey to discover who they are and what is special, meaningful, lovable and powerful about her.

Like an alcoholic, I have struggled with the first step – admitting I have a problem. The shame and self-hatred of being powerless has washed over me. Now I can move on, find our family’s own steps to living in a sane world that acknowledges the truth of all parts of each of us. Now there is hope.

Pact Camp: Challenges on Planet Barnacle

This is part of a series of posts about our expereinces at a camp for families formed through transracial adoption.
Intro is Pact Camp: An Introduction
Part 1 is
The Information
Part 2 is Challenges on Planet Barnacle
Part 3 is First Glimpses Out of the Race and Adoption Fog

Challenges on Planet Barnacle

Pact Camp logistically was hell for me and the kids. We struggled mightily with food, relationships and scheduling. It didn't seem like others struggled, so I fear this was an unfortunate planetary misalignment for our family. We are a little high needs and quirky.

I had anticipated a few challenges with food and had called and talked with the camp organizer in advance. I brought extra snacks and lots of oatmeal, she told me the kitchen would be aware of our food restrictions and work with me. Sounded like we were good to go. I was in no way prepared for what we came up against. The kitchen understood there were people who couldn’t have eggs, corn, wheat, and pineapple. What they didn’t get until 3 days into it (despite my repeated conversations) was that it was all the same 6 year old boy. Their repeated offering for his alternative food choice was a big plate of tofu and creamed vegetables.

Now, we’re pretty exotic and diverse eaters. A normal month will see us eat foods from around the world: India, Japan, Africa, Thailand. My son loves seaweed, roast duck, taro and buckwheat. But handing him a plate of baked tofu and veggies just isn’t going to make it past his 6 year old palate. For 3 days I had a kid who fed on a few offerings from each meal. A breakfast of sausages and oatmeal isn’t that bad, but follow that up with a lunch of a slice of turkey and some grapes, then a dinner of a few ounces of chicken and some potatoes chips and by bedtime I’m facing an angry, starving beast who can’t sleep.

The final straw: Tuesday dinner we scavenged the buffet and came up with a plate of mashed potatoes, then hopefully headed to the kitchen for the “alternative” offerings – yet another scoop of tofu. Theo started whining, I burst into tears and we fled to the quiet of the trees to regroup. I skirted most of the other campers (because I hate to have people checking on me when I’m on the edge), and we found the camp organizer, who had already heard from the kitchen. She told me where I could find a kitchen to use and told me how to get to town. The kids and I piled into the car, and I only had to pull over twice to cry on the way to town. Once there, we filled our bellies with tons of delicious sushi, had an Ben and Jerry’s pity party (think 3 spoons and a pint of vanilla ice cream in the Safeway Parking lot). We made it back to camp about 11:30pm relaxed and armed with 2 bags of foods Theo could eat. From then on meals were tear free.

The other food challenge was the large presence of what our family considers junk food. Sugared cereals for breakfast, cake, cookies, or brownies for lunch and dinner, fruit “punch” and Nestle hot cocoa for drinks. My kids know we don’t eat these things, and we talked about the possibility of them being offered at camp several times before we arrived. But again, none of us were prepared for the onslaught. Every meal included a long conversation about why we don’t eat those things, why they are so fun to eat and how hard it was to have them available and watch other families eat them.

Probably the food issues would not have thrown us for such a loop if all of us weren’t emotionally raw from navigating the foreign seas of life with others in charge. Remeber, we're homeschoolers living in a city that is knee deep in child-let learning and reflective/active listening theories. At 9am, we were split into groups, 4-5’s, 6-7’s, etc and adults. We were in our groups until lunch time, then we had 45 minutes to eat and connect and then we were back in our groups for another 2 hours until “Family Time.” Family time was compromised by planned talks and activities with the amazing presenters and the hair clinics. Finally dinner was at 5:30, and then more programs planned at 6:30.

It was too much for us. Being group by age alone was enough to freak out my kids – the kids they connected with weren’t always just their age. Groups were further divided into boys and girls, a completely unusual concept in our part of the world and very disorienting to Theo who values the balance of boy and girl energy. The time away from each other was too concentrated, and the short time for meals was stressful. I quickly abandoned the hope to participate in the evening programs. We’re often winding down for bed around 6:30. And my kids don’t do well on shorted sleep.

Rosie’s group had an amazing adult working with them, a social worker and attachment expert from Minnesota. She “collected” Rosie (a la Dr. Gordon Neufeld) the first day, and Rosie was devoted to her the rest of the week. This soothed most of the experience for Rosie, though she still dreaded the act of separating through most of each break.

Theo, however, didn’t have an adult he was oriented towards and, from his telling, the kids in his group were not particularly kind or respectful towards each other or the counselors. Actually, it wasn’t just Theo who noticed this, our daily conversations with the head counselor for the 6-7 year olds mirrored Theo’s concerns. The counselor worked so kindly with Theo to help ease his experience. But the truth was that Theo’s cup just wasn’t getting filled. The rambunctious set of boys he was often group with , the very structured set of activities and the lack of time for imaginative play left him hurt, angry and aching by the end of the first 2 hours of the first day. And it just got harder from there. He and I talk a ton, worked with his counselor and cried a lot together. Finally Theo and I spent Thursday afternoon and Friday morning together playing foosball, talking and walking around camp.

So camp was wildly hard for us. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything harder that didn’t include a trip to the hospital. That said, because of the amazing information and presenters for the adult sessions, I anticipate going back next year, armed with my husband, plans for lots of alternate meals and a very well spelled out schedule of freedom and connection for Theo and Rosie.

Pact Camp: The Information

This is part of a series of posts about our expereinces at a camp for families formed through transracial adoption.
Intro is Pact Camp: An Introduction
Part 1 is The Information
Part 2 is Challenges on Planet Barnacle
Part 3 is First Glimpses out of the Race and Adoption Fog

The Information.

I came to camp desperate to understand what I needed to do to help our family become a safe and supportive place for Rosie to explore her identity and ultimately love and accept herself as a black woman raised in a white family. The volumes of solid information, practical advice, and heartfelt sharing of life experiences blew my mind. I’d been clinging to the idea of Pact Camp for the past 4 months, trying to keep myself from spiraling into a messy explosion of angst-ridden motherhood. What I was offered was far beyond my hopes and expectations.

The Speakers
There were many speakers at camp with very well organized presentations about an array of subjects related to transracial adoption. Maybe someone else will objectively outline them, but since I don’t have all week to write about the wonders of each presentation, I’ll just focus on my big take-always. One of the things I really liked about the presentations was that all of these people had direct experience with transracial adoption: adult TRAs, siblings, parents. And their professional lives reflected this. So all of the information we got was expert level but with the necessary underpinnings of true understanding, rather than just academic speculation.

Sue Harris O’Connor and Lisa Marie Rollins shared honestly about what it was like to be them growing up as transracial adoptees in white communities. Their descriptions of always feeling like “the other” – both in public and in the privacy of their own homes – and their honest conversations about not feeling fully accepted and beautiful were answers to questions I’ve been asking myself for a long time. Basically, what happens if we don’t move out of our Disney-white perfect neighborhood and lifestyle? Now we're house hunting.

Sue also communicated her racial identity model. This is so helpful for understanding Rosie’s world, I found it breath taking! Swiped from Susan Ito’s blog, here it is with Susan’s helpful examples.
· Genetic Racial Identity: this is the factual identity that comes from birth family. A person is half X, and half Y. They may or may not know the details of these facts, but this is what is. (for example: I know that I am half Japanese and half… something else)
· Imposed Racial Identity: this is what others assume/say/think about another’s racial identity. This is about people thinking that I just can’t be Asian, that I must be Jewish, or Italian, or Puerto Rican or whatever. Or this is about people thinking I’m not at all white. Or about people thinking I look just like their freaky aunt Betty. Many people experience this as racism or confusion or judgment, but it’s all about other peoples’ experience of you. Biracial/multiracial and transracially adopted people get other peoples’ imposed racial identity their whole lives. Susan Harris, in a different forum at the conference, read an incredibly poignant piece from notes that a nurse took about her as an infant in foster care: on days that she appeared to be especially “Negroid” in her features, she also seemed coincidentally “delayed” in social development; on other days, she seemed less black to the nurse, and oddly, also more “advanced.” (sigh)
· Cognitive Racial Identity: This is what a person thinks or knows themselves to be. I know that I am biracial/hapa. I know this with my brain.
· Feeling Racial Identity: (okay, this is where I really started blinking the tears) This, Susan Harris explained, is what you feel like inside. Regardless of what other people tell you, and regardless of what you even know to be true. This is where I say, I feel Japanese. Whatever that means. I feel Asian. I don’t feel half white because I feel like I have little proof or experience of that aspect of myself. I have not met or seen proof of my white birthparent. The three out of four parents I know (2 adoptive, one birth) are all Japanese. Despite the “facts,” this is all that I feel I am inside. She says that this feeling RI is not always in synch with the other kinds of racial identity: genetic or cognitive. At this point my brain was going BINGO BINGO BINGO, the cherries were all lining up, the slot machine lights were flashing and twirling and I just felt like one big Yes.
· Visual Racial Identity: This is when you need to use a mirror to understand who and what you are. Often transracial adoptees feel disconnected from their visual image (I know I am, although after forty-something years I’ve gradually, and I do mean gradually, started to get used to what I look like) and have a distorted racial image in the same way that people with eating disorders have distorted body images.

John Raible talked about the concept of transracialization . My nascent understanding is that this means not just living in an area where there are some people of color, but actually creating lots of meaningful long-term relationships with adults who look different than you do. He then asked us to question with whom we work, live, worship and drink. He introduced the idea of Allies, stating that in the struggle of race, there is no neutral. And he had plenty of practical suggestions for how to become racial Allies and how to begin to transform our lives. Suggestions beyond joining a church and putting our kids in a racially diverse school, which are two things our family is very unlikely to do.

Amanda Baden gave me some initial vocabulary for understanding the transracial part of our world, defining and using words like race, culture, ethnicity, white privilege and class privilege. None of these are unknown words to me, but presented in this context with her explanations, they now hold a more useful and meaningful place in my head.

Holly Van Gulden specializes in attachment. I loved everything she said and bough both her books about adoption and attachment. They’re at the top of my reading pile now. Her stories entranced us all, and she had a fascinating way of talking – using what she calls “parts language.” Like any new way of expressing oneself, it sounds really stilted at first, but she had several compelling examples of how it is effective with adults in professional settings. Basically you describe the parts of you and/or your child as you talk: your stubborn parts, your singing parts, my helpful parts, his sad parts. I, of course, had to try it out on my kids as soon as we reached the anonymity of the airport. Both kids have really responded to it, and so far I find that the conflict between us has diminished. Can’t wait to learn more through her books!

The Information and Concepts
For me, the best part of Pact camp was the relief that comes with the acknowledgement that yes, something is not right with our family. What a relief to have some initial vocabulary and concepts I need to start making the changes my mommy-instinct has been screaming about over the past several years.

I’ve talked about most of them, but there is one additional, giant idea I wanted to share, something I have never needed to see or understand before. Race is IMPORTANT – many of the speakers underlined that in their life journey, race trumps all. In dealing with all the challenges of transracial adoption, each of them first needed to resolve the issues of their racial and cultural identities and how they fit into the world before they could begin to move into understanding the layers of questions brought in by adoption.

The To-do List
So with this knowledge and compassionate professionals to set me straight, here are the action items I see for the next year.
- Get cultural-sensitivity and anti-racism training for both Bill and I
- Take a long hard look at where we live
- Exchange our extra-circular activities for more diverse ones in more diverse locations
- Figure out what is developmentally appropriate for conversations about race and racial identity with our children and start talking

The Compliment
Another great moment at Pact Camp was what I’ve been think of as “The Compliment.” Winter, the really loving, alive and fun woman in charge of the hair clinic, high fived me when she realized I’d been the one to braid Rosie’s hair. And another for doing the beads myself. Ah…… a little salve for the many wounds of hair anxiety. I don’t totally suck at this!!!

Pact Camp: an introduction

** Edited July 2011 - make sure to check our family's growth and progress with Pact via my Pact Camp 2011 post.

This is part of a series of posts about our expereinces at a camp for families formed through transracial adoption.
Intro is Pact Camp: An Introduction.
Part 1 is
The Information
Part 2 is Challenges on Planet Barnacle
Part 3 is First Glimpses Out of the Race and Adoption Fog

Pact Camp

At the end of June, the kids and I headed off to Pact Camp. Pact, according to them, “… is a non-profit organization whose mission is to serve children of color in need of adoption or who are growing up in adoptive families.” Pact Camp is, not surprisingly, a camp - a week long summer camp that focuses on the issues involved in transracial adoption. Parents have the opportunity to hear speakers on a variety of adoption, race and parenting topics. Children get the chance to spend time with other transracially adopted kids and their siblings, as well as interact with counselors who specialize in adoption and race.

In the past few years, as I trolled the Internet looking for information and advice to assuage my waves of fear about our family’s ability to help Rosie create a strong and loving self definition, I have come repeatedly across Pact. I don’t know what has been more reassuring to me, the answers they seem to help families find or the really hard questions they seem to be constantly asking.

In desperate need of face-to-face conversations with real live peope, I packed up the kids, our sleeping bags and three huge duffels of other random things that the kids *had* to have, and flew us down to San Jose. I’ve worked now for months to try and create the perfect posts that will succinctly capture the most important moments and take-aways from our time there. But the task is overwhelming. The sheer volume of information, plus the waves of feelings as I deeply begin to grasp the far reaching effects of race and adoption on my childern and our society as a whole are beyond my feeble powers of summerization.

Bear with me as I try to express myself. Here we go.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Summer Power

One of the things I love most about summer in Seattle - and this seems to come as a shock to most people - is the Blue Angels. There is just something deeply thrilling and truly awesome to me about watching those huge, heavy machines doing a screaming ballet far above me.

For four days in August, our yard randomly shakes with the thunder of jets passing directly overhead, kids yelling "there it is, there it is" and the dog woofing wildly. The past three years, the kids and I have driven down to the Museum of Flight to see them parked and hit the souveniers tent. And for the past two years, our family has enjoyed the airshow with our feet in the sand and waters of Lake Washington. This year we invited friends and made a potluck event out of the day.
As a homeschool mom, I'm constantly aware of the educational possibilities that arise during the day. I sometimes wonder what my kids are learning from this annual tradition. To admire the miliary and the mighty machines it creates? To swoon at the power we humans have learned to harness? Perhaps to understand the ambivilance, or duality, that many things in our life hold - the wonder of the gravity-defying jets and pilot precision versus the sadness of the purpose of the creation of such force and skills?
In the end, I hope they're learning something deeply positive and formative from it, because I love the planes and can't wait to do it all again next year!

Rosie at the Museum of flight with the jets.

Theo with the number 6 jet - important to him because he is 6 years old and it is one of the two solo fliers.

Saluting as we pass the Concord. Check out Theo's new flight suit!

Beach fun while we wait for the show to begin.

For Rosie, this much power is still best observed from Daddy's arms.

In true kid fashion, Theo became totally engaged in this sand castle minutes before the Blue Angels started flying and missed most of their acrobatics due to the construction of many towers.

PS. Sorry about the formatting in the post. Blogger can't seem to get it together.