Saturday, November 28, 2015

Happy Birthday Happy Homecoming 2015: “You are grounded!!”

In October and early November, I had to travel a fair amount for work. Michael and I also planned a couple’s weekend to Vegas as well as me joining him for his first ever marathon in his home country of Athens, Greece.

When I had a couple trips under my belt, I was sitting down with Leyla to talk through the rest of my schedule. I could see she was not happy (she is pretty easy to read).  She looked me dead in the eyes and told me quite sternly, “Mama, you are grounded!!”  

I was speechless.  I wasn’t at all sure the right way to respond; this was completely new territory for me.  Should I start by telling her kids don’t get to ground their parents?  Or should I explain again why I thought it was important to take these trips?  Or run her through all the things we would do together when I was back?  

I decided none of those responses were the right ones looking into her deadly serious face with tears threatening.  I could see she felt powerless in that moment.  So instead, I sat down with her and created a calendar so she could mark off each day and see how many were remaining until I returned, my heart aching as we did it.  And I was rewarded with a trademark Leyla grin.

I thought a lot about her surprising words in the following days and weeks.  They had a variety of different meanings for me than those originally intended.  She has grounded me in so many ways since she joined us our family on my birthday seven years ago.

1.      She grounded me in what family really means; an intense connection and acceptance that transcends time and circumstance.

2.      She grounded me on actively addressing inequity in the world because to her it is simply unfair and mama can and should do something.  And she is someone I can't bear to disappoint.

3.      She grounded me in the power of love to multiple.  My love for her, hers for me; the love between her and her brothers and the special place she carved out as daddy’s little girl.

4.      She grounded me in how inexplicably pain and joy can simultaneously coexist as she has cried in my arms for her first mom.

5.      She grounded me in committing to being the best version of myself because I want to be the person she thinks I already am.

This little girl with the crazy awesome hair, the tinkling laughter of an angel, the squeezy hugs which warm from the inside out and those pointed questions that probe gently, and sometime not so, into the heart of things.  Every bit of her complex and beautiful soul has grounded me in important ways; giving me priceless gifts I am just beginning to fully appreciate.  

Thank you my sweet daughter.  I am looking forward to spending this birthday, and hopefully many, many more, with you, your big brothers and your dad, celebrating the day of my birth but more importantly the day you joined our family!  I am happy to be grounded.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

OHBD 2015: Education is a right and shouldn’t be dependent on where you are born

As I was preparing to speak with my daughter at our 2015 OHBD event, I reflected on where it all started for us.  In 2008, I was sitting at my desk at Amazon in the Pacific Medical building waiting to see a picture of our daughter.  My husband Michael was doing the same Kentwood High School.  The little girl who joined our family put us on a completely different path.

When she was two, we were searching for ways to connect her to her birth country and for ways to equalize opportunities for children there.  We firmly believe access to education and the doors it opens is a right and shouldn’t be dependent on where in the world you are born.

We learned about Ethiopia Reads and it spoke to us.  Ordinary people, a writer and librarian, started this effort and were having a tremendous impact by drawing in people with a heart for kids from all corners, teachers and students and artists, and the list goes on.  We started by asking all our friends and family and even strangers to help us plant a library in Leyla’s birthtown of Bahir Dar, home to the thundering Blue Nile Falls.  

In 2011, we visited a number of Ethiopia Reads efforts including the site of the library. We were amazed and entranced by the natural beauty, the culture and the people of that ancient land.  And we were also educated on the significant gap that still exists related to literacy and educational opportunities. 

We knew for Ethiopia Reads to continue to help close this gap it needed a sustainable, stable source of funding, which it didn’t have at that time.  We decided, with help and encouragement from people like our art director Yadesa Bojia, to start Open Hearts Big Dreams later that year. We tapped into our communities.  Many from Amazon then and now were part of building the event.  Kentwood High School National Honor Society volunteers helped us the first year and every year since.  And neighbors, friends, friends of friends, and people we never met before all joined with us to do what truly seemed impossible when we started.  We were blown away by the support and success and were emboldened to think bigger.

Each year we have grown the attendees, the people and organizations who contribute in so many ways both big and small, and as a result greatly increased the support we can provide to Ethiopia Reads to enables big dreams for over 130,000 kids.  Leyla has also grown and since she was 4 participated in what she describes as “her event.”  

When we returned to the fully functioning library in Bahir Dar in 2014, she got to see what this meant to kids who didn’t have a library before.  And we also learned the need continues as that small library is supporting 2000 children from grade school through high school, many of whom are hearing impaired.  We are working to complete an expansion so there can be a place for both the small and large children to connect with books in an age appropriate environment.  

Watching Leyla and her brothers, join her dad and me and an amazing global community, to allow deserving kids to dare to dream takes my breath away, every year.

But there are still more kids who need our assistance, please consider contributing, truly no amount is too small to have a real, positive impact. THANK YOU!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Multi-cultural siblings -- Lots of LOVE and Laughter

When you join two cultures through marriage, like my husband and I, you know your children will live in the land between, never truly belonging to one or the other. From observing my Dutch parents growing up and my Greek husband as an adult, though their cultures and paths were quite dissimilar, they experienced this suspension between their birth culture and the one of their everyday lives, as a bi-product of immigration. What then for the child we adopted from Africa? Where does she live? How many in-betweens does she represent?

Having three children and experiencing multiple cultures allowed me to observe that their cores are similar, under an exterior of bountiful uniqueness. But how does that apply to siblings who are culturally diverse from each other? Adding to our family through transracial, international adoption only magnified this realization that a familiar sameness resides at the center beneath the diversity.

 My eldest son, Dimitri, was 11 when his sister came home. He was actively involved throughout the adoption process, wanting to understand the paperwork and home study, and even giving me some tips along the way. His biggest fear was his little brother would blow it by saying something he shouldn’t. His specific words were, “What are we going to do about Damian? You never know what he is going to say!” which is true even now. He was also astute enough to pick up on things that weren’t said. After a conversation with our social worker, he commented, “She just asked us a bunch of questions to make us feel we were a part of it.” Damian at the time was seven and far less interested in the process, although he enjoyed meeting the social worker. A fun-loving, goofy chatterbox by nature, he finds conversations with random adults quite engaging and looks for—or in its absence, often creates—the absurdity in life worthy of a laugh. He is much more circumspect with his inner self, which is masked by his bubbling persona.

They were both very excited about a new little sister and wanted a baby. Dimitri was also pleased with the possibility of gaining a sibling with a different skin tone which I learned unexpectedly when we were considering adopting from Russia. When I mentioned it to him, he asked me, “Why would we do that? Then she might look like us. Being a diverse family is much cooler.” Wow, that really hadn’t occurred to me. Damian initially struggled with the concept that a member of the family could look nothing like the rest of us. He is a linear thinker and likes to find the order in everything. Transracial, international adoption defies such attempts. My eldest contemplated much deeper thoughts that many prospective adoptive parents also wrestle with too. “Would he love her? Would she love him?” Those bonding concerns, if they persisted in my Damian’s little pointed head, were never expressed. Although given his private nature, I suspected they lurked beneath the surface.

When their sister arrived home as a beautiful six-month-old on my birthday, their personalities were reflected in their relationships with her. My eldest was a nurturing presence, hovering around whenever she needed something. He even referred to himself at one point as a third parent. My youngest focused on making her laugh – she ironically looked a lot like him as a baby (beside the obvious difference in skin tone and hair), which people commented on with some frequency. They both unequivocally, unconditionally adored her.

My husband joked about the positive effects of bringing a girl into the house, “Maybe she will tame the little savages.” I was skeptical, but it turns out she did in many respects. As she grew into a verbal, confident three-year-old, she made her place in the family known. She is in charge—we all do her bidding and happily. Dimitri is her go-to person for sympathy and support. When she was little and got herself in trouble or got hurtelf, she calls out, “I want my MEESHI!” (using her early pronunciation of his name). She sought out her other brother for laughter and fun asking things like, “Where’s Damian? I want to knock him down and tickle him.” Their faces still soften when they talk to her. And when she wakes up, she asks, “Where are my boys?”

Throwing it back a few years -- siblings
We changed the course of her life and her culture when we brought her home from Ethiopia to join our family. But she also changed the course and culture of each one of ours. While I expected this for my husband and me, the immense change she precipitated in each of her brothers is more amazing to me. Dimitri was given the opportunity to show flashes of the father he will likely be. He has a new appreciation for the caregiver role and lets himself be vulnerable and open to his little sister in a way that defies the throes of the teenage years. Damian found a kindred spirit for many of his interests, from eating to music to generally being a goofball. He discovered the joy of being an older brother, and revels in holding that place in someone else’s heart, as his older brother always has in his.

They both are now connected to the culture of a land geographically far away but close in many of its manifestations. My three angels—Dutch, Greek, Ethiopian and American. A fuller understanding of the different in-betweens they represent will likely reveal itself as they grow up. But like any other siblings, they will continue to share an intense and abiding love for each other throughout their journey of discovery.

A version of this post previous published on InCulture Parent.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Family Evolution: The Meaning of Multicultural

I grew up in a multicultural house. My mother was born in the Netherlands. My father, although also of Dutch heritage, was born in Indonesia and spent much of his early years split between those islands and Australia. He brought with him foods, languages, a love of large birds and a unique accent. I was born in New Jersey but my parents raised me Dutch. I learned the language before I learned English, lived the customs and ate traditional foods, which included a number of spicy Indonesian dishes. However, I felt uniquely American too.

I lived in the Netherlands in my early twenties. I loved it–the people, the bikes, the tulips–but as comfortable as I was living there, it wasn’t home to me as it is to my parents, in particular my mom. Home is the U. S. for me. When I married my Greek husband, I added another cultural dimension. As my unpolitically correct Oma (Dutch for grandmother) said when she found out we were getting married, “You know they are not like us.” I never asked for clarification. My husband was born in Thessaloniki, Greece and moved to the United States as an adult. He is an American citizen but like my folks, identifies with his original nationality.

My boys consider themselves Dutch (although they are one more step removed) and Greek but mostly American. That was until their little sister joined the family via Ethiopia. Now they also consider themselves Ethiopian. Adding this culture followed a different process than those we brought with us. Before our daughter completed our family, I knew few specifics about what is uniquely Ethiopian.

So we went about discovering what made up this new branch in our cultural family tree. Our culinary tastes expanded to include injera, wat and berbere. The children’s book author, Jane Kurtz, opened a window into the Ethiopian experience through her moving books. We brought back native music with a distinctive beat and souring vocals. Through YouTube, we even discovered an Ethiopian singer named Fasika Dimitri (two of our children’s names). Our celebrations expanded to include local Ethiopian events with shoulder shimmying dancing I hope my daughter will one day master.

Enjoying a family moment in beautiful Istanbul -- 2015
When I started blogging for, I needed a description for our blended family. I thought of “melting pot” to describe how different cultures come together. My husband preferred the term “salad bowl.” I had never heard this description so I did a little research. Because America may have more varied ethnic groups than any place else, the term melting pot was born to describe this unique multi-ethnicity. Our nation is a large pot with everyone thrown in. Over the years, cultural elements are blended together, or melted, to form the American culture. The expression my husband referenced identifies each culture as an ingredient that contributes to the whole, while retaining its original characteristics rather than blending.

Neither fully represents my experience. My childhood retained elements of Dutch culture. For example, we celebrated Sinterklaas on the eve of December 5th, with wooden shoes on the stairs that were filled with candy when we came down in the morning. We also observed Thanksgiving and July 4th, uniquely American traditions. Similarly, when I joined my life with my husband’s, I gained the concept of name days. Greeks don’t celebrate their birthdays. Rather, they celebrate the day of the saint they were named after. We now have both in our family. Each child has a saint’s name so they can participate. When our daughter came home, she brought new holidays with her too: Ethiopian New Year is September 11th and Christmas is January 7th.

Although both “melting pot” and “salad bowl” describe what it means to be multicultural, I wish there was a concept that captures how your culture becomes richer and deeper when you introduce others to it. I have come to better appreciate the unique aspects as well as the similarities of each culture because my life includes more than one. Each culture had added to our lives and we didn’t want adoption to rob our daughter of her heritage. Instead, we wanted to enrich our family through the inclusion of her culture. I choose to savor, retain and blend all the elements into a unique family culture that celebrates them all.

We have Dutch lullabies, Greek “Se Agapo“ (I love you), American football and soccer loyalties and Ethiopian coffee ceremonies. We have music and artwork representing each country in our home. Our lives are more vibrant for having strands of Dutch, Greek, American and Ethiopian cultures woven into the fabric of our celebrations, expressions and everyday life. And our hearts and minds are open to the many others around the globe.

A version of this post was previous published on InCulture Parent.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Adopting a Culture: Our Family’s Journey to Becoming Ethiopian

When we first decided to adopt, we initially considered China.  We chose that country, in large part, because it was familiar. We knew a number of families who adopted little girls from there.  When that comfortable choice was not an option because of changes to the program, we were faced with the uncertainty of choosing from those countries available to couples our age. A primary factor from the beginning was the health of the child. We knew any choice entailed risks, including having a biological child.  However, we wanted what we felt was best for our family, which included two active young boys.

As we progressed through the adoption process, a secondary, unforeseen priority emerged— the culture of our child’s birth country. When we were pursuing adoption with China, we discussed our limited knowledge and understanding of this culture and the need to educate ourselves and incorporate new customs and traditions into our family.  But we had no idea where to start or how to make that goal a reality.  We knew families where culture did not play much of a day-to-day role in their lives.  But that was not an approach we could embrace.  Culture brings such richness into the fabric of our lives.  And we knew our child’s birthright was an integral part of who they were and what they were bringing into our family.

When we began learning about the similarities between Greek and Ethiopian ways of life, I could instantly envision incorporating this rich, new culture into our mosaic.  It gave us comfort with our decision. I learned modern European scholars considered the name Ethiopia to be derived from the Greek words aitho “I burn” and ops “face”.  Greece and Ethiopia share ancient roots as well as ties to Orthodox Christianity.  A young Ethiopian woman once commented on my blog that she was welcomed into a Greek Orthodox church and community when she moved to a place with a limited Ethiopian footprint, and she remarked on all the parallels too.  I found the symmetry of her experience fascinating.

When we first visited our daughter’s East African birth country, our understanding of the similarities multiplied. Much of the foliage in this nation, we had also seen in the Mediterranean one, which struck me when I tried to understand why I felt so at home in Addis and our daughter’s native Bahir Dar.  Both countries share a focus on family and a fierce national loyalty to a land whose glory days had faded.  I also noticed a certain joyful embrace of the more light-hearted aspects, whether it be the lack of punctuality or certain common foibles.  A board member of Ethiopia Reads commented to my Greek husband, Michael, at a fundraising event, “You know ‘your people’ and ‘my people’ are very similar in neither are good at arriving somewhere at the appointed time.”  Both peoples maintain a belief that the key to solving the toughest national problems involves working together.

As we each experienced our own individual reactions to the adoption process, each family member made the connections between our previous family cultures and this new one in their own unique way. Ethiopia reminds my husband of the Greece in his youth with its challenged infrastructure.  My eldest son did not talk much about the impact his sister had on his own identify.  He liked the idea of having a diverse family and definitely was interested if students or fellow athletes shared his sister’s heritage. But as I was cleaning up one day, I came across his school ID from the first year Leyla was home.  He had taken an Ethiopian stamp and put it on the front of the card next to his picture.  I definitely understood in that moment the expression, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

My middle son, Damian, was more direct.  He asked if he was Ethiopian now because of his sister.  I reasoned, “You are because her culture is part of our family but you might have to explain to people if you tell them so.” He has embraced going to the local Ethiopian Community
 Bahar Dar (Blue Nile Falls) Ethiopia 2014

Gondar Ethiopia 2014
Center. He is often the only non-Ethiopian child and seems oblivious to that fact.  He will enthusiastically create flags and decorations for a New Year or other celebration or just play with the kids.

I took an unorthodox step that demonstrated the extent of my evolution on taking on another culture.  I have an extensive LinkedIn network and join groups of my focus areas or interest.  I joined the Ethiopian Professionals Group.  I introduced myself as the mother of an Ethiopian child who wanted to connect with her culture for her and for our family.  I received the most amazingly warm welcome and truly felt I was a full member where I could both contribute and learn.

When I started this blog, the year after our daughter came home, my goal was to try to give back to this amazing land that gave us our daughter. I planned to raise awareness of both the need and the beauty and use it as a mechanism to learn more.  The name I chose summed up those goals so well.  I discovered a very different sojourn in the years since.  The connections I forged are not just educational in nature or for my child; they have tied our whole family to a diverse group of people involved in some way with her culture whether as their birth country or from their own love of it.

As I heard from an actress on Twitter, “Ethiopia has a way of bringing people together.”  So true, I found. I can now count an Ethiopian actress, artist and poet as important people in my life.  I now call a writer who grew up in Ethiopia and tirelessly advocates for literacy progress there both a friend and an inspiration.  When you bring a child that doesn’t share your biology into your heart, we call this “adopting a child.”  For us, that process also meant “adopting a culture.”  Our connection to Ethiopia continues to expand and grow, affirming our choice. 

A version of this post previously published on InCulture Parent.