communicating under water

I remember the first time I was able to connect to Tsega, my three-year-old's "story." I was sitting on the couch, talking to one of his therapists about his challenges, my concerns for him, what I believed about his trauma and the effects of it on his life and brain and future. And I broke down into an ugly cry. As I spoke the words aloud and shared the details of his life it hit me: The depth and scope of what my son experienced. And I wanted to take it all away. It was horrible, unfair, stupid. I was angry at the people in his life that allowed it. Most kids at age three are learning colors and how to sort shapes and how to share toys. He has bigger fish to fry and sometimes it feels like the fish are trying to eat him.

Now I have two more recently adopted children. It has been an interesting pursuit to once again attempt to relate and really understand the events and circumstances that have shaped them. With Fikir, my six-year-old particularly, I've been trying to get inside her life, her past a little, so I can better meet her needs. I want to understand why she does what she does. I also would really love to know who she is. It is a good exercise in empathy for me, to put myself where she was and try to feel what happened to her, and pinpoint where in her development she was when things went downhill for her family.

I have been a little stuck in this exercise. I have found it hard to see the links between her coping mechanisms, behavior,  her personality, and her story, her life.  I feel a compulsion to find these connections so I can appreciate the complete package and see the whole person, not just the one in front of me. Because the one I hang out with everyday is like experiencing a human in 2D. Communication is largely to blame.

She is magnificent, brave, spunky and determined. But she had some tender years robbed of their innocence and safety. I am certain based on tales from her mother and from how well she is doing in her new family she had some good years. Real stability and love from her parents. It is obvious our girls both had love, because they know how to give and receive it. But she cannot remember much of those years.  Truthfully, she is wholly incapable of talking about feelings or memories. She doesn't admit to having any or thinking about much. She lives completely in the moment. She likes to play, she loves the snot out of her new siblings, and I mean, I cannot stress enough the inseparable nature of the kids in this house. She loves doing school and her activities, and she has handled the transition of her life in Ethiopia to this one in the US as well as any kid could. It's shocking how well she is doing.

But, but, but... I feel like reaching her on deeper level is like trying to have a conversation with someone under water. It's distorted, blurry, we can't really hear each others' words, and she doesn't understand what I am saying, and she doesn't have the words to say much. If she did, I wouldn't be able to hear most of it. We are signaling, gesturing, at least, I am, and the bubbles and shiny things are distractions in the way.

We get along. But it's all logistics. It's What we are doing today, it's Planning for tomorrow, it's What she did at gymnastics. Think about how you converse with a two or three-year-old and you will know the extent of what we discuss. (Don't be deceived by her knowledge of all the lyrics to Call Me Maybe She has no idea what "threw" "wish" "well" "stare" mean.) We can chat about meals, the need for clean teeth and bathing, tired, car rides, please don't lick that, coloring, games, stories, scary monsters not under bed, who's turn it is for something, animals, clean ups "oops, spill!" Beyond that, well, there is watery abyss.

We've known each other for four months. We are family and we live together and hug and share cups and do hair and rub lotion, and read stories, and plan outings and laugh. And we've never had a real conversation that hinted that she understands or acknowledges in the slightest what has happened to her life, her family, or how it's made her feel.  I don't know if  she's ever thought about it, and even if she has, she has no way to talk about it. If you ask her how she's doing, she will say good, and get back to her barbies. And she means it. She would have no idea how to talk about anything beyond this moment, wherein she is actually good. It doesn't matter if I speak to her in Amharic, either. She is shut off in both languages.

Oh yes, to me it feels like we are communicating under water. This girl in front of me isn't real, because when I think about what happened to her I want to throw up with fear and panic and the Unfairness of it all. The lack of real feeling and understanding is harder on me than her. This shallow level of interaction comes naturally to her. It's safe to think about nothing. It's a happy place.


Every adoption book and therapist gently reminds parents that however long a kid has been the family, should be how we view their development in months, and eventually years. We should go by their "family age" not their actual age in meeting needs and setting expectations. So Fikir has been here four months, and really, it is clear she needs the kind of patience, nurturing and has many developmental skills and needs of a four-year-old. And it can be so strange, confusing, tiring to treat a big kid capable of some big kid things more like a little kid, and adjust expectations in a downward direction.

It can also be very freeing. Fikir isn't ready for "school." She needs to have fun learning her shapes, colors, letters, how to find things that are alike and similar, following directions, basic sequencing, logic and of course, above all, English English English learning. We are working on what are by definition pre-school skills. I had visions of schooling my same-age girls together, and it has been humbling to realize that what Samantha needs in school is so different and that I can do almost zero school for them the same way. Samantha is learning to read novels on her own and respond to writing prompts. Fikir is learning what sounds the letters make and how to hold a pencil properly and how to tell if things are alike or different.

And Fikir deserves to learn those things. She is doing great at those things. They cannot be skipped nor rushed. She is learning words for things in English that she never knew the word for in Amharic. Like  "ladder." A picture of a ladder stirs up no word for her in Amharic, she never needed one, maybe never saw one. During some really important months, when she was four when kids in most of our families are introduced to hundreds of new words, places, things and ideas in a given month, she was tucked away in the walls of a care center, where little changed, she wasn't read to, and there was little introduction to new words, ideas, places, or vocabulary (and oh yeah, not the least of all factors she was a little tiny girl who lost her parents. Her brain probably did a darn fine job protecting itself by starting to shut things out. New things = scary.)

She is making up for lost time. She is cheerfully and doggedly learning about the world and how it works. I just hope that with her words and with her neurons connecting so too our communication will improve. I hope that someday she will have enough words and the desire to talk about herself. Her feelings, who she is, how she thinks. Because right now, she is an utter mystery to me. It feels so strange to have a child, my daughter be so unknown and unknowable. I live with a giggly stranger.

I know, I know. It takes time. Patience and time.  I guess for now I will sit down here with her in the water, playing "tea party," smiling as much as possible through the distortion, the light prisms and the bubbles. But I can't wait to get out of the water onto dry land, and really hear her and have her really hear me. I don't know when it is coming, but I suspect it will feel like breathing air.


Sara said...

This feels so familiar to me. Thank you for sharing. I really like the analogy of being under water. Just as long as none of us are drowning!

Vertical Mom said...

We deal with the exact same thing with Little Man. He speaks English (he's from Philly) but he has a language processing disorder so the words don't always mean to him what they should. When he first came, we took him to therapy for grief counseling and the therapist quickly learned that he had no idea what a feeling was. Much like Fikir, he would answer "good" when asked how he was. His goals in counseling switched from working through grief to simply understanding emotions. He would smash his finger in the gate and casually say, "Mom, I think I hurt my finger." No tears, no emotion. Sweetest kid in our house but he had no emotional compass! We read the book "The Way I Feel" every single night for weeks and made the kids act out the emotions or tell us a time when they felt that way recently. That helped him tremendously since it was a multi-sensory project. It's almost been a year and I wanted to cry for joy this morning when he told me about something someone did last night and he said, "Mom, that hurt my feelings." I wasn't happy that it hurt his feelings but that he KNEW what was appropriate! I know it is frustrating to you but hang in there. She does need to grasp English first, of course, but just being available and pushing her gently to identify emotions with your openness to hear them will allow her to start identifying how she feels. It will come. Little Man's auditory processing issues still get in the way but we're making progress and she will, too!

Vertical Mom said...

By the way, here is the link to that book: http://www.amazon.com/Way-I-Feel-Janan-Cain/dp/1884734723

Jennifer Hambrick said...

I relate to this in so many ways with my Eli as well...and its been over 2 years with him as part of our family. I feel as though I know him, but don't KNOW him...and I too look forward to the day when we will both be able to come up out of the water. Great post. Not often talked about stuff.

Deborah said...

So living this with our 4 adopted from foster care. Would love to hear more about what you do to really get to KNOW them. Please feel free to email me.

findingmagnolia said...

That family age deal is a real deal. I also have a theory that at whatever age trauma occurred, that's the age at which people get stuck emotionally. So if the hardest things happened for Fikir at age 3 and 4, then she might be stuck there. I think it also takes a lot of time to develop the bond and the trust that comes with being able to dig deeper. I come from a family of stoic Midwestern farmers. Some of them have had *horrible* things happen to them, and they will never acknowledge it. They're always "fine" or "as good as can be expected." Keeping things shallow feels safe. I think that with your loving direction, Fikir will eventually go deeper, but it might take a long time. Z will express big feelings but still resorts to "fine, no big feelings, why are you asking me" when she is in self-protection mode. You're doing good work. You'll both come up out of the water eventually; for now you'll just have to use your mermaid gills.

2plus2mom said...

I, too, have really struggled with trying to understand Ayub's story. He can't tell much and when he does, it is often interrupted by fiction (Batman enters when things get tough). I'm having to start dealing with the fact that I may never know some of the things that make him who he is and I'll just have to settle for knowing the kid that exists today. It's so hard, though, because I want to know so much more...

Captain Murdock@Godwilladd.com said...

I can so relate to this. MB has been home (gasp) almost 11 months. He is just now giving up bits of his story. I thought maybe he didn't remember it, but no. He just didn't trust us enough before. And still, he rarely tells us much when we ask. It has to be all his idea, his prompting. Then I am often shocked by how much he remembers. Since he spent 2 years in the care center, I wasn't sure how much he would remember/process, but it is much and deep. Much deeper than I ever would have guessed six months ago, and much deeper than I would have imagined from a 6 year-old.

Paula said...

Oh, how familiar this story sounds... when our twins were newly arrived, they were much the same. As they grew more secure and through progress in therapy, they began to share a lot more and be more open with emotions. It's a process, as you know. And sometimes it sucks. Sometimes it's beautiful. You just have to keep on going.

Cindy said...

What we are finding is that the child who only speaks on the shallowest level emotionally MAY remain interacting that way even after language comes. It is hard some days. Thanks for the great post!

Barb Aloot said...

It's all there, like treasure in a shipwreck. It will wash ashore in bits and pieces and when you reach a critical mass, it will make sense.

It is wonderful that she is part of a family that loves stories. When she starts telling and writing stories, some of them may be deeply true.