As I am studying for my lay ministry classes in between writing a long "Mommy" letter to be translated for our girls (Thanks Vegas!), I am finding a convergence of a single theme and I guess that, as usual, I will use the blog to work out my thoughts about it all. I am sorry folks, that you are sometimes subjected to the odd and sometimes incomprehensible ramblings I post here. If I tried to encapsulate all that is going on in my head right now it would be impossible. Too many Big Things I am trying to wrap my mind around, no way to narrow the focus, no matter how hard I try. Sometimes they seem related, most of the time they don't and I don't have any place to "put" them. The thoughts continue to bounce around as if the inside of my brain is a pinball machine and bumpers are hard at work causing a cacophony of bells, lights and whistles to be set off, adding to the chaos.
In my reading this week, which really had absolutely no relationship at all to a pinball labeled "hospitality", I found myself working over that concept a bit. The ball bounced back and forth, racking up points but I have yet to hear the bonus bell so it must need to roll around a little more. So I am rolling it around right here.
I used to think of hospitality in a very different way, and it was not something I felt myself capable of offering. I pictured Martha Stewart-esque table linens, dimly lit well decorated rooms with floral bouquet accents and candle light creating a gentle warmth that was subtly inviting and comforting. Included in my image was a well appointed table filled to overflowing with beautiful dishes and delightful platters of foods, crusty woven breads and the clink of fine china. I am absolutely, utterly unable to create such an environment and so I never tried.
As we grew into our childless coupledom and developed friendships we would have others over but it was more like family than entertaining, and that I could handle. It wasn't until a few years down the road when I began to understand what "hospitality" really meant.
We made new friends with large South African enveloping arms who taught me what hospitality was really all about. Their home was one you felt welcomed into anytime of the day or night. If the house weren't really "company ready" they'd shove everything to the side of the table to make room for their guest and immediately set about rummaging through cupboards and fridge for whatever they could find to lay out a spread. It was not Martha-like at all with the bags of chips, remainders of yesterday's meal, the 2 liter pop bottles spread across the kitchen counter. Oh, don't get me wrong, they could also throw a beautifully appointed party with creative table decorations and wonderful dishes, but somehow that was never when I felt they were at their finest. No, their greatest examples of hospitality were the quickly thrown out "Don't go home, come over to our place and hang out...we'll figure out something to eat!" or the knock on the door or last minute phone call from someone whom they also insisted join us all, and the quick shuffling in the kitchen to cut something into even smaller pieces so there would be plenty for everyone to share...even if the quantity hadn't increased one ounce. Somehow, there always was enough to go around, of both food and laughter.
I guess you could say that I learned that hospitality is an attitude, not a table setting.
We are hospitable in an Anti-Martha sort of way. When friends come to visit, we break out the Corelle or the Dollar Store huge plastic bowl of chips and crack a jar of salsa. We offer the soda and you're lucky if we remember to have enough class to offer a glass with ice in it rather than make you drink out of the can. We point to the fridge and the snack jar and say "Help yourselves...make yourself at home..." because we truly feel our home is their home too. Then we kick our shoes off, prop our feet up and listen, we yack for hours, we break out photo albums and stories, we wrestle with your kids and change their diapers, we try to ignore the dust on the blinds or the mud the boys track in, we ignore the raucous noise outside on the trampoline as who knows how many kids are out there having a blast and we occasionally interrupt you to tell the kids yet again "this is not Grand Central Station...inside or outside please!" and in between it all, we want to just be present for our guest...to let them know they are a part of our lives as surely as our own children are. We invite them to be part of our "real" life and let them know we don't see them as a stranger, but as someone important in our lives whom we love to be with and will share all we have with. I can't share what I don't have...even if it is entertaining skills...but I can share our joy, laughter and love.
And when it comes to adoption, particularly an older child or in our case children, how do you exhibit hospitality? What are some ways you can be inviting and purposeful about your child's first few weeks with you? How can you offer them a warm reception as they are strangers in a new environment before they begin to meld into family life with you?
This might seem to be easy and a stupid question to even ask. After all, they are kids! What do you mean "hospitality" for kids? Or even "They are ours and we love them, why would we think of them as strangers in our home?"....
I'll tell you why, because they are strangers in your home, and any pretense otherwise leaves you open for a rude awakening. Forget that you have spent years longing for them, forget that you have perhaps spent bonding time with them, forget that your heart swells when you see their little smiles. They have never set foot in your home, they have never slept a night in your beds, they have never eaten your foods...and as much as you'd like to think that they MUST love you because hey, after all, you saved them from orphanage life (she says very tongue in cheek), you are still mere acquaintances on your way to becoming much more. They will feel like strangers, even if you don't view them as such.
How can you be hospitable to your new child? How can you make them feel warmly received? Is a welcome home party just the thing? Or is it more than that?
It is way more than a party or having a darling room waiting for them, although of course those are little pieces of it.
The single most important thing you can do to be hospitable to your new child is to welcome all of who they are, to invite their entire history into your home with open arms, to not deny that they had a life that came long before they joined you and not every moment of it was miserable.
Their life did not begin the moment they were joined with you. You may wish to think it, they may have a painful past you wish you could sweep under the rug and leave covered there, you may experience great grief as you fall more and more in love and realize all the time you have lost. But no amount of sweeping can brush away the years that came before. They may also have had some terrific times, moments they recall with great fondness.
Talk about their friends from the orphanage...ask them what they liked best about them and to share their stories of them. Do them a favor and record them for them, as time will dim those memories. Ask about their favorite caretakers and do so from a place that doesn't require validation that YOU are now the most important person. There may have been some very special adults in their lives whom they cared a great deal about, and seeing them as some sort of long distant threat denies you the chance to be grateful that those special people helped form who your amazing child is today. If they have photos or you took any, print them out right away and have them around the house...put them up on the fridge so your child will know that anyone who is special to them is important to you as well and deserves to be prominent in your home. Kenny had a photo his caretaker gave him of herself on our fridge off and on for 2 years, along with one of her daughter whom he had fond memories of. I met this woman for 10 minutes and will never see her again, but Kenny has precious few things to carry forward from his old life and this was important to him.
If your kids have something from their old life...a piece of clothing, a small toy, a tattered drawing...don't push it aside or put it away. Let them have it near them at all times if that is what they want.
As soon as possible get photos of your new child up in family frames and if you had photos of them when they were younger get them up immediately. Claim them as part of your family as naturally as if they had always been there. Seeing their faces amongst yours makes them feel a part of you.
Make a point of having comfort foods present at all times. Yes, even if it is hard boiled eggs and you have them for a year on hand. Don't worry as much about nurturing their bodies as you do nurturing their souls. Having at least SOMETHING familiar when all else is not is very important.
They may smell bad when you first meet them and visit them, hug them and kiss them anyway. They may act odd at first, hug them and kiss them anyway. They may strike out at you or be inappropriate with anger, hug them and kiss them anyway.
Give them a place to be fearful, to express pain, to share sorrow and grief. Don't minimize it, don't say "Well all's well that end's well!", don't ignore it. Having a new life does not make the pain of the old life magically disappear. You may be the best mom or dad in the world and your kid may have hit the jackpot getting you for a family BUT there are frankly going to be times they will not feel that way and will wish they could be back in their old life. It may not make sense to you, it makes perfect sense to them...the devil that is known is often less scary then the devil which is not known. Don't make anything ever about you or how they are hurting your feelings by expressing their own pain. Don't give them reason to have to comfort you. It is not about you. Be secure in your role as their parent and let them have their feelings, your job is to help them through it.
Set boundaries but don't sweat the small stuff. They will test you, absolutely. But take it one day at a time and attack things that need to be changed in small increments. Eventually you'll get it all nailed down but if something is minor and can be overlooked while you focus on a more important issue, ignore it and come back to it later. Don't leave them feeling as if they can do no right and are corrected every single waking moment. There is time to get to everything, it all doesn't have to be corrected at once.
Touch them in non-threatening ways often. Let them know you are aware of their presence and are enjoying it. Hugs and kisses may be too much for some kids at first. A hand on a shoulder or a tousle of their hair is not. Walk with your hand on their back, compare hand and foot sizes, play footsie under the table. Physical affection is not part of every day life in an orphanage and it may feel uncomfortable at first or they may simply not feel close enough to you to allow this, which is absolutely fair. Give it time, part of being hospitable is knowing where your child is on the continuum and letting them gradually move forward on their time frame and not yours.
Let them in on the family jokes so the very next time it is told they will understand and be able to laugh along. We have already shared several with the girls such as when Kenny first met the boys and playing "hiney spank" on the Kupie doll or about Matthew swallowing his tooth one time. Let them in on your family and cue them in on your particular family culture. And in fact, you may not believe this, but we are already joking a little about our first week together and the long faces. We are choosing to see that from a different place than others might, we want us all to relax over it and not have it be the elephant in the room but instead just a part of our LaJoy family story. We are already saying "Remember when we..." to recall things since we have arrived, as it is as important to build on that inclusive family history as it is to let them in on all that came before their entrance.
When you visit others or go some place new, explain it ahead of time. Don't thrust them unprepared into a new and perhaps uncomfortable situation. Let them know what is happening for the day, show them a clock on paper and pantomime what you can. You will find that basic language will come fast enough to help you explain more things than you think.
Kids from orphanage environments typically don't have the opportunity to make decisions on their own. Don't expect that to come easily and don't get frustrated when you get mixed signals. Angela is already a star at doing this...flip flopping when asked if she likes or doesn't like something and we quickly realized she doesn't have the decision making skills of others her age. Take baby steps and don't ask for big decisions to be made. Act as if they are a toddler in this way and give them a choice of two things and let them pick. Let them go back on their decisions as they learn what it IS to make decisions. It is too overwhelming to say "What do you want to do today?" but is not at all overwhelming to say "Would you like to visit the museum with us today?".
Find someone locally who can help you translate when it is too hard to explain something. Or find a Skype buddy with good language skills. Offer them a million dollars to help you :-) or at least your undying gratitude and loyalty. I still remember the one time we really had to have help as Kenny was SO upset over not getting something across and the relief we all felt when we got a hold of someone who could translate.
Be patient with one another, love IS patient, love IS kind. Cut your new child some slack and cut yourself some slack. There will be lousy days and good ones. Never revert to thinking you wouldn't revert to if walking into a new marriage...there is no such thing as relinquishment and there is no such thing as divorce. They are yours forever, and you are theirs. Of course, there are exceptions in the case of truly mentally disturbed children but that is another issue. Don't let the bad days turn your head back to the days pre-adoption and think how wonderful your life was without the added stress of this new child. Instead, dig in and think of how far you will have come 6 months from now.
As soon as is possible, share with your child all the ways in which you thought of them before you ever met them. Even if you didn't know who they were, share the ornament you bought at Christmas or the books you bought for them 6 months before they came home. Let them know their life with you began long before you met.
Help those closest to you understand what is going on when something is odd. Remember, you are the gatekeeper of all that adoption research and it is your job to share it to help others understand so they can be supportive. If you are in a power struggle, let them know why it is important for your child to learn to trust adults CAN take care of them. If you have a child wandering around who has to touch every single thing because it is all so new and they never had the chance to explore like that in their toddler years, explain it. Often you will find true friends are understanding and when explained want to help and will look for opportunities to work with you on these behaviors. They will not laugh or roll their eyes when your 11 year old son wants to play with their 18 month old's toys :-)
Finally, remember their "stranger" status for awhile. Remind yourself when they do something inappropriate or forget where to put the forks up that they ARE a stranger in a strange land. While you don't want to treat them entirely as a stranger, remembering that they have been with you only a short while can help keep the compassion in place when the frustration sets in. Take yourself back to the time spent in their country while traveling, if indeed you did that, and how out of place and helpless you felt. It is a great tool for keeping your expectations realistic.
So now we have come to the end of the pinball game, this particular thought is now put to rest. The next ball is queued up and the plunger is pulled. Wonder what else will be bouncing around tomorrow?