There is something about you turning four and a half that has me a little emotional. First, it’s probably my last half-birthday letter to you. I decided a couple of years ago that I would keep the half-birthday letters going until age five, at which point it would be time to reduce them to simple yearly letters. My thought was that a child’s biggest growth — in mobility, vocabulary and personality — happen in the first handful of years of life; after that, I figured there wouldn’t be enough to say between birthdays.
I would hate to become redundant, you know.
Of course, true to form, you have continued to surprise and amaze me, and I have found that the past six months have showcased some of the most remarkable changes in you.
Sweets, you are really coming into your own. You seem happier, calmer (well, slightly), and just generally more in control of yourself and your emotions.
Look, you’re an intense person. You always have been, and I suspect you always will be. That’s ok; it’s a good thing. I love having a son who feels things deeply. I think your sensitivity is a gift.
But strong emotions are hard for a little kid to manage. In the past six months, though, you have demonstrated that you are learning how to do this. Sure, it means some fist-shaking, some foot-stomping, and a whole lot of door slamming. But you are using your words more, and you are learning to walk away from the source of frustration to calm down rather than lash out. You are accepting hugs more, breathing more deeply, and visiting Time Out much, much less.
You are doing so well in school. I want to cry just typing that because your first year of preschool was rough. It’s not your fault, really; you’re an energetic boy who was in a program that didn’t allow a safe, productive way for you to get that energy out. The result was that you got yourself into trouble. Constantly.
But this year? This year, your teachers make a point to tell me how you’re one of the most polite little boys they’ve ever had in their class. That your vocabulary is ridiculously expansive. We already knew this, of course. You regularly bust out incredibly adult-like phrases. You might say, “Well, according to this…” as you study the directions to a game. If I interrupt you, you’ll look at me pointedly and say, “As I was saying…” When we tell you something you’re not sure how to interpret, you respond with a, “Hmmm. Interesting.” You recently ran up the steps to our front door and turned back to tell me, “I was off like a shot!”
Off like a shot. It might be the perfect way to describe you. Your energy remains endless. You run and jump your way down hallways and streets, up stairs, and through life. It is something to behold.
Perhaps the biggest change for you since turning four is that we told you we are going to adopt a child, that you will become a brother. One of the greatest joys of my life has been witnessing your excitement, the way you already love your “yittle brother or sister.” (You don’t yet realize the brother or sister might actually be bigger.)
I have admittedly been focusing much of my attention on getting your sibling’s room ready. A lot of packages have been arriving on our doorstep over the past several weeks, and your face lights up when you see each one. Not because you hope it’s something for you but because you hope it’s something for your brother or sister.
I knew you had a big heart, Ryan, but I don’t think I fully appreciated the depth and purity with which you love. Your sibling will be awfully lucky to have you in their corner.
We’re coming up on the two-year anniversary of our move from Arizona to Pennsylvania, which is also the two-year anniversary of my decision to trade in the 9-5 work life so I could stay home with you. I’ll admit it — the thought of being home all day terrified me. I worried I’d feel bored or lonely or somehow unfulfilled. It was needless worry, though, because it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. I will always cherish these days, months and years we have had together.
You make me and Daddy so darn happy, dude. As we always tell you, we love-you-love-you-love-you-love-you.
Happy half birthday, Ryan.
Previous birthday letters to Ryan:
He’s trying to balance it just right.
The plastic gray phone is tucked between his right ear and his right shoulder, just the way I taught him. He’s pretending to multi-task, walking back and forth from the living room to the dining room, chatting away.
“Mommy, there’s a phone call for you,” Ryan says, thrusting the toy toward me.
“Oh, who is it?”
“It’s the lady who’s going to get us a brother or sister!”
Our caseworker, he means. The woman who talks to him in a soft voice and promises to play Legos with him the next time she visits. The woman who will play Legos one day and drop off his sibling another day.
I *talk* to her, and she *reiterates* that we should get the third bedroom ready for his brother or sister. That we should make sure we have a bed, a dresser, and a few toys and books. We cheer and high-five because we’ve already done all of those things, so we must be pretty close to being ready.
We hang up, and Ryan decides she’s probably bringing his brother or sister in six days – or two days – or four days – or FIVE days! Yes, she’s definitely bringing his brother or sister in FIVE days!
He’s excited. Which, of course, makes me happy. That’s been my goal over the past couple of months, after all — get him excited without allowing our preparations to overshadow him. When packages arrive on our doorstep filled with books or a new hamper or a toy bin shaped like a fox, I use my Excited Mom Voice to tell Ryan how we did the very same thing when I was pregnant with him. How when he came home that first day, he had a room full of things that made him feel comfortable and loved, and that every child should have that.
He gets it. He really does. He is a sensitive child who is always looking for ways to connect, ways to give. He understands that he has a hundred books and his sibling only has 10. He understands that he has toys upon toys upon toys, and he wants to go through all of them and pick some out for his sibling, who has but a few stuffed animals.
He has embraced this process with a grace and confidence that is equal parts awe-inspiring and scary.
Awe-inspiring because he has never – not once – questioned why we are adopting rather than having a baby. This new child will be his sibling from the second he/she walks through the door. I feel that deep in my soul, and I see it reflected in his eyes.
Scary because I know it’s not quite that easy, at least not legally. It’s likely that his sibling will live with us long before anything is a done deal, long before biological parental rights have been terminated.
Ryan can’t understand the lack of guarantees. There is no way to tell a four-year-old that this child may or may not be his sibling forever depending on the circumstances.
And really, I don’t want him to be anxious or confused. I want him to be excited and hopeful, to love his sibling without fear.
But I know that means he could be hurt.
I want to empower him, but I want to protect him.
I’m not sure there’s a way to balance it just right.
I had been putting it off for months. The one thing in this whole foster care licensing process that really should have been a home run for me.
Mike and I each were required to write an autobiography. Not like a 500-word, quick-and-dirty sort of thing, but a “we don’t like to set a limit on it … but they’re at least five pages, and usually closer to 6-10 pages … but, you know, whatever feels complete to you” sort of thing.
I don’t know why I hesitated so much. It’s not the page length, necessarily. I probably write 10 pages worth of copy every week between my freelance writing assignments and my own personal writing.
But I’ve never written about such a BIG topic. Where does one begin? “I was born on a sunny May day in Cleveland, Ohio…”
Wait. Was it a sunny day? Should I fact-check that with my mom? Or perhaps it’s implied that I was born at some point, so I should skip that part altogether and pick the story up … where? When I was toddling? In school? Maybe I should I back it way up and start with the state of my family before I even arrived on the scene?
How much is too much? How little is not enough?
It would get to be too much of an internal debate; rather than tackle it, I would set it aside in lieu of filing forms for background checks, reading the recommended books, attending the required trainings, and posting “No Smoking” signs in my home.
Slowly but surely, my massive to-do list dwindled until there are only a few things left.
And the one at the top was: “Autobiography.”
I should have had this done in Week 1. I’m a writer, for the love of God. This should be the part that I knock out of the park.
That’s part of my problem. I’m not one to throw words on paper, brush my hands together with sweeping satisfaction and call it a day. I knew I’d be pouring my heart and soul into it. I knew I’d want to make all sorts of connections from the way I was raised, life experiences, and opportunities I carved out for myself, all as validation for the idea that I can do this. I can successfully parent a foster child.
I finally forced myself to sit down and — over the course of two sessions — pulled together a nine-page, 4,381-word summary of my life.
The whole thing is copied and pasted below.
Believe me, it’s not nearly interesting enough for anyone besides our caseworker to have to wade through. (She asked for it, right?)
I hope, at least, that I started it off on the right note:
In many ways, I think much of the path my life has taken has purposefully led me to this point, preparing me for the challenge and the joy of adopting from the foster care system. When I look back, I think so many things had to happen in just the right way and in just the right time in order for me to be in this place. In this state with this husband and this biological child – and ready to adopt.
I had this little ritual when I lived in Arizona.
Whenever we would have a particularly persistent monsoon storm, I would put my shoes on, and venture out to our balcony to stand to watch the rain.
There was something about those storms that felt somehow romantic. The way the rain fell in a straight vertical line from the sky to the ground. The earthy smell of water splashing against desert dirt. The refreshing feeling of moisture in the ordinarily dry air.
I would almost always be the only one outside for as far as my eyes could see, breathing in and out, leaning my bare arms against a stone banister, watching the continuous wall of rain and the occasional lightening that lit up the sky like a strobe.
Its beauty was stunning.
I have this little ritual now that I live in Pennsylvania.
Whenever we have a particular persistent snowfall, I put my shoes and my coat on, and venture out to my backyard to stand to watch the snow.
There is something about the soft way the snow falls that feels somehow romantic. The way it gathers and muffles any and all sound so that when you step outside, you leave all sights and sounds of life behind. You enter a world of utter and complete stillness.
I am almost always the only one outside for as far as my eyes can see, breathing in the dry, cold air and sending it back out in puffs of white. I study the yellow windows that hint at the warmth found inside and the way the light from each lamppost casts long shadows across pristine blankets of snow.
Its beauty is stunning.
I walked out of the store and turned toward my car, keys in my right hand, my left hand clutching three flimsy strings.
At the end of those strings were heart-shaped balloons in loving shades of pink and red. It was hard to be sure I was holding them tightly enough to keep them safe, though, because I was also juggling a bag full of kitschy Valentine’s Day stuff – a stuffed red gorilla, plastic heart glasses for the whole family – as well as a roll of wrapping paper that I would use to wrap up the new toy we’d bought for Ryan.
I went a little overboard for Valentine’s Day this year, decorating my house so that when Ryan woke up, he would find himself in the middle of a Wonderland of Love. Heart tinsel down the banister, heart balloons tied to each dining room chair.
I don’t know how many years he’ll be into this stuff. How many more years will I say, “Valentine’s Day is a day of….?” and he’ll respond with a breathy “loooooove!” Not many, right?
So, for as long as he cares, I’ll bring the magic. To teach him that life can be as special as you choose to make it. You can roll your eyes and call it a “Hallmark Holiday,” or you can use it as an excuse to spoil the people you love, to break up an otherwise dreary winter month with something bright and beautiful.
I stuffed the balloons into my trunk as fluffy white snowflakes floated down around me, coating the road, the windshield, my hair. I jumped into my car and began driving home, trying to beat the cold and the snow, picturing how I would set up all the decorations, picturing the look on Ryan’s face when he saw the balloons, the chocolates and the gifts.
Thinking, “It’s really enough stuff for two kids.” Fighting back tears.
Most days, I am able to hold it at an arm’s length. I consider the concept that we have a future child out in the world somewhere right now, experiencing things we can’t control, and I call the idea too abstract to analyze. I tell myself that yes, we will eventually adopt a child but it’s not yet determined who this person is, so they don’t really “exist” in our world.
But then I roll out of a store, arms full of holiday cheer and it’s clear that I’ve subconsciously purchased for two kids even though I’ve only got one at home. And then I think of how badly we want that second child to be with us, and then I wonder where that child is and whether or not anyone is thinking of him or her on Valentine’s Day, the way I would. The way I already am.
I want to be teaching my second child the same thing I’m teaching my first — that if we feel love, we should show love every day. But that it certainly doesn’t hurt to scream it from the rooftops once a year, just for the heck of it.
Is anyone screaming from the rooftops for you today, kiddo?
I hope so. I hope someone is showering you with love. But just in case they’re not, please know that we are, even if you can’t feel it quite yet.
She walks into our home, peeks around the corner from our sunporch to our living room and says, “Wow, what a beautiful home.”
My shoulders slump with relief and my entire body relaxes as I fight back the urge to respond, “Is it really? Do you really think so? Is it … good enough?”
I’d been preparing for our first home study for days. I’d been filling out forms upon forms upon forms until my fingers ached and my head grew foggy. I’d been hunting down all sorts of random pieces of information – a marriage certificate, proof of life insurance, addresses for every place Mike and I have lived since we were born.
I had covered every open outlet, I’d moved cleaners from the bottom of the linen closet to the top shelf, I’d transferred alllll the liquor (three bottles of vodka?) from the floor-level liquor cabinet to a high pantry shelf, out of reach of little hands.
You’d think we didn’t already have a child in our home, but of course we do. The difference is that we know Ryan. We know that he has no interest in the liquor cabinet or the kitchen cabinets or the linen closet. He has his own brand of mischief, trust me, but these particular things? Simply not an issue with him.
But when you decide to take in a child who is not yet legally yours, a child you don’t yet know, you need to be prepared for everything. You start looking around your home and thinking, “Oh dear God, that’s not safe and that’s not safe and...”
You lock away your medications. You diagram your Fire Escape Plan, which up until this point had simply been, “hope we never have a fire.”
We understand the why of it all, of course. We know it needs to be done, and we think it should be done. It’s jarring, though, to open your door to a stranger and feel like you’ve got 90 minutes to prove your worth as a parent, a role you’ve already actually had for more than four years.
Still, I know — all of this is the easy part to the process. My discomfort with proving myself as a worthy parent, my exhaustion with the piles of paperwork, my anxiety over the endless “what-ifs” … this is our initiation.
The stuff coming up? That’s the stuff that will change us forever.
Our caseworker sits at our kitchen table, tucks her hair behind her ears and softly tells us stories. Stories that are not meant to scare us but to prepare us. Stories that naturally do a little bit of both.
She needs to know that we’ve considered it all: How our current discipline methods won’t work with a foster child, how we’ll need birth parent approval for every haircut we schedule, how we might (will likely?) deal with bed wetting and/or food hoarding and/or unknown emotional triggers of all kinds.
But somehow I’m just relieved that we’re having this conversation at all. That she has looked at our home, has looked into our eyes and has deemed us worthy enough to prepare.
I sort of hated having a due date when I was pregnant.
The thing I hated about it was that it was really just a doctor’s best guess. As a natural born planner, a guess wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. For such a monumental life change, I wanted a sure thing.
I spent most of my pregnancy operating under the assumption that Ryan wouldn’t arrive until pretty close to the due date. Then, at 34 weeks, a friend of mine pointed out that she’d had her son at 35 weeks. I ran home to pack a hospital bag, suddenly worried he’d come early.
And then I sat around and waited. And waited. AND WAITED. And the little stinker was 10 days late.
Still, when you’re pregnant, you can usually pinpoint the baby’s arrival to a span of 3-4 weeks. I’m realizing now what a luxury that is.
This time is very different. This time, there is no due date. I have no ultrasounds to share. There’s no growing bump to compare to the first time around.
But all the same, we’re expecting. I’m not going to give birth in nine months, but at some point (hopefully) this year, we will become a family of four.
We will spend the next few months proving ourselves worthy as parents and then one day (in three months? in eight months?), our agency will call us up and they’ll say they’ve found our child. Technically, we’ll foster our child first, for however many months (years?) it takes for his or her case to work its way through the legal system.
Ohhhh, the variables involved in growing your family this way. The variables run circles around my brain.
It’s actually a lot of the same variables you have with a pregnancy. You don’t know the child’s gender or personality or preferences. But with a baby, some of it doesn’t matter right away. Trial and error is your best friend. Screaming baby? Try milk. No? Try rocking. Still no? Change the diaper. Shift your position. Give them a different view. Take off a layer of clothing. And on and on.
When you screw it all up, when you still can’t stop the screaming, it’s fine because babies don’t remember. They might be mad, they might be uncomfortable, but they don’t know enough about the world to blame you for it.
We’re not having a baby, though. We’re requesting a young child, approximately Ryan’s age, give or take a couple years in either direction. And experience tells me that a 3- to 5-year-old knows when you’re screwing it all up.
You’ve got to be a little more on your game with a preschooler. They might hate the color green but you don’t know that, so you give them the green cup and it enunciates a key insecurity in both of you: You’re not the real mom. You’re an impostor. A mom would have known her child hates green but loves red. A mom would have reached automatically for the red cup.
This time, though, I know better than to spend too much time treading in my own worry. It’s a stressful waste of time, one that doesn’t change life’s outcomes.
I worried Ryan would be colicky. He wasn’t. I worried we wouldn’t bond right away. We did. I worried he’d be born with some kind of developmental delay. Nope, all good.
I didn’t worry his immune system would be a pathetic revolving door of germs for the first two years. But it was. So, what’s the point in worrying when I always worry about the wrong things?
Instead, I’m focusing on that which I can control. I can fill out the 1-inch-thick pile of paperwork. I can set up the kid’s room. I can line up babysitters for our adoption training sessions.
And, I can follow Ryan’s lead. Four-year-olds are wise, you know. He doesn’t worry about timelines or what-ifs. His concerns are much simpler yet somehow more profound.
He wants to know whether his brother or sister will watch movies with him; more importantly, he wants to know whether I’ll make two bowls of popcorn so they can each have one.
Two bowls of popcorn. Yes, I can do that.
I’m over on Mamalode today with some news about how we plan to grow our family this year — and the resulting emotions. Here is a preview:
I call you “Sam” in my head.
Like, I should buy some sheets for Sam’s bed or I wonder if Sam would like this book.
I needed a way to easily identify you, and “Sam” is where I landed.
When you’re pregnant, you refer to your child as The Baby. It’s gender-neutral, it’s fast and it flows off the tongue. You decorate the baby’s room. You get a craving and you call out, the baby wants Skittles!
Do you know what doesn’t flow so well? I want to get this for the kid we plan to adopt from foster care. Or… I wonder if the child who is placed with us will fit into this car seat.
Ryan was thirsty after school today. As I navigated through a light dusting of snow, I passed him a half-full bottle of water that had been hanging out in my car for a couple of days. The cold from the night before had frozen some of the water, which led us to a discussion about how ice is formed.
Once Ryan felt he had a thorough understanding of the relationship between water and ice, garnered from no less than 25 questions, he turned his attention to the ice’s shape.
“The ice block in that bottle is round, like a cookie.”
“Yep, it is,” I confirmed. “That’s because the water bottle is round. The water froze in the same shape as the bottle.”
“Ohhhhh, right! So if we had a square bottle, it would make square ice. And if we had a triangle bottle, it would make triangle ice. Hahahaha!”
I silently reflected for a moment on that thought, particularly on our society’s complete lack of triangle water bottles. I wondered whether there might be a market for such a thing (four-year-olds, perhaps?) or how one might drink from a triangle-shaped spout (carefully, I suppose).
In my silence, though, an even bigger thought occurred to Ryan: “If we were REALLY tiny, we could ice-skate on the ice in the bottle!”
My mind officially blown, I allowed him to see through this train of thought on his own. He quickly decided that becoming so small might not be such a good idea because “when we tried to sleep in our beds, we would get lost in our sheets. And then we wouldn’t be able to find each other!”
A natural problem-solver, he then surmised that this could be remedied by moving from our big house to his little playhouse in the backyard. Although, one more obstacle: We might be too small to open the door.
“Oh, I have an idea!” he exclaimed, a cartoonish lightbulb shining over his head. “We’ll just CLIMB the door. That would perfect.”
We would have to find ourselves a tiny TV, we decided, and new clothing because ours would be too big. But we were pretty sure that overall, we could make this work.
Now if only I could figure out a way to bottle up his preschooler imagination.
Phew. I think my Christmas hangover is finally subsiding.
I’m not just talking about the random – yet strangely satisfying – combination of cosmos and Miller Lite. Sure, that is probably the main reason I moved slowly for most of Dec. 26. But mostly, I’m talking about the way my body needed to recover from the months of thinking of what to buy, where to buy it, who to buy it for, what to bake, when to bake it, who to share it with, and oh right, I’m supposed to be making all of this “magical” for the kid.
I hereby send a message to the Meg of 2015: Listen, lady. Don’t start Christmas shopping in September. I know you want to “get a jump” on things, but really. By Christmas Day, you’ll be so sick of Christmas that you’ll threaten to skip the whole thing altogether. Be sensible. Start on Black Friday like all the other crazy procrastinators.
I think I did alright, though. If you take away the constant wracking of my brain for new, exciting gift ideas for Ryan that I ultimately gave out to everyone else (evidently, people are tired of buying him dinosaurs), it really was sort of magical.
Actually, this might be the Christmas I dreamed of before we had Ryan.
Somehow, when you think about “having kids,” you imagine how magical the holidays will be with little ones running around. Their eyes will be full of anticipation and they’ll be desperately trying to keep their energy in check and the number of rude comments (“Mommy, I TOLD you to clean your car!”) to a minimum, so they can make it onto the coveted Nice List.
As you imagine all this, your brain kindly fast-forwards through all the years it takes you to get to that point. The Christmas where you’re pregnant but don’t know it yet (oops, wine), or the Christmas where the baby screams for hours despite all the guests who are waiting for dinner (oops, bad formula).
Christmas: Toddler Edition is a little more fun, but mostly in a we’re-amusing-ourselves-with-traditions-that-he-doesn’t-really-get sort of way.
By age 3, he finally understood the whole “Santa” thing. But he had no memories from the year before to rely on, so he was sort of taking our word on the whole deal as we started from the beginning: “So, there’s this guy named Santa and he wears a red suit…”
But this year, oh my.
He remembered it all this year. This was the first year I didn’t have to explain Santa. I was like, “Santa is coming soon!” and he was all, “Omg, holy shit!” (Or whatever the preschool version of that is.)
He remembered putting out cookies for Santa last year. He reminded us repeatedly that Santa’s reindeer like carrots. He understood that his advent calendar was about more than a daily chocolate fix. He got a video message from Santa, and I swear his face glowed for two straight weeks after watching it (and watching it and watching it and watching it).
He listened intently as I told him the story of each and every ornament — my condition for allowing him to hang them by himself (with perhaps a little help reaching the high branches and a few gentle suggestions about spreading them out properly).
While we decorated, we wore Santa hats and called each other “Christmas Ryan,” Christmas Mommy,” and “Santa Daddy.”
We decorated gingerbread cookies three times. We watched Rudolph, Frosty and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. We read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and The Polar Express. We read and watched The Grinch a disgusting amount of times.
We drove around, snacking on Christmas cookies and chocolate milk and gasping at light displays, “Look! It’s a Santa and he’s WAVING! Look, toy soldiers! Look, candy canes!”
We discussed the logistics of Santa delivering the gifts to our house, considering “we don’t have a chimney OR a log.”
And when he woke up on Christmas morning with a shy, hopeful smile … well, that’s pure Christmas gold.
Ryan was a four-year-old bundle of holiday cheer, and it was everything I dreamed of. It makes it all worth it. The preparation, the running from here to there and back to here, and the “oh my god, I haven’t gotten his teachers anything” moment.
Of course, just when I thought I had finally recovered from the whole thing, he turned to me today and sweetly asked: “Is Santa coming to my house again soon?”
I'm Meghan. I grew up in Ohio, came of age in Arizona and am now raising a family in Pennsylvania. I'm a freelance writer, an essayist and a stay-at-home mom to a spirited four-year-old boy. We're on a journey to adopt our second child through the foster care system. I'm told I am too organized and too sarcastic for my own good but I don't see how either is possible.
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