Communicating Under Water: When Your Daughter Is a Stranger

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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. Sisters, home from Ethiopia for a few months. 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 her past, 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 more than 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. 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 almost 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. 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, I think she exercises a sizable amount of selective hearing, and she doesn't have the words to say much. If she did, I wouldn't be able to understand 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 decently. We aren't in a state where she rages and cries uncontrollably. No, it's pretty calm. But it's all logistics. It's What we are doing today, it's Planning for tomorrow, it's No I am not giving you an apple, dinner will be done in five minutes. 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, being tired, please don't lick that, coloring, games, stories, 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; we 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, her first language, 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.

I get the impression that as of right now, 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 adoptive and foster 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 three- or four-year-old.

I knew this going into older-child adoption, but it can be so strange, confusing, and 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, learning English. We are working on what are by definition pre-school skills.

As a home schooling family, I had visions of schooling my same-age girls together, and it has been humbling to realize that what Samantha (my home grown daughter who is Fikir's artificial twin) 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. She doesn't remember day to day what the word "drawer" means yet. Fikir deserves to learn those pre-school things. She is doing great at those things. They cannot be skipped nor rushed.

Another thing that takes a huge amount of time and effort is 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, around ages of four and five, 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. Not the least of all factors affecting this whole murky water communication thing 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.

I want to know her feelings, who she is, how she thinks and especially what she remembers. 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 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.


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