the sound of you

Once, when my son was very young and very sick, I wriggled into bed with him to sing to him. Well into my second verse Connor’s fevered eyes opened and stared at me. I stopped singing because his look was so intent. After several seconds of gazing he said, “I don’t want the sound of you Mommy, I just want you.” Enough said. I got quiet.

How often I forget these words when things are hard, when my insides are stirred, or when others need comfort. How rarely are my responses to self and other born out of a still silence, a quiet readiness.

Quiet is hard to come by these days. No longer do we plough the field that sits miles from our neighbor, grind the wheat in our isolated single room home, or go to bed when it gets dark. Instead we pop in our earbuds, instantly chat while doing our homework, surf while watching Oprah, and light up our nights with screens of all kinds. While we are filling up our moments we are neglecting our souls.

We are a lonely people, I believe. Some of us are lonely for others, some for roles and responsibilities we no longer fill, some for our pasts, some for places. I believe that all of us share, however, a deep and growing loneliness regarding our inner most beings. As the external demands and opportunities for distraction have grown, our discipline regarding quiet, stillness, spiritual reflection, and solitude (in its truest and healthiest forms) has shrunk. Silence is squeezed out of our day to day existence and we are lonely for our selves. 

I am often shocked by how out of touch with my deepest core I can become in an instant. I am distracted in prayer, my mind wanders when I meditate, I can’t finish a task without thoughts of seven others breaking through. In these moments it could be easy to convince myself to pop in my ipod and listen to a lecture, use a guided prayer or meditation podcast, or work to perfect the art of multi-tasking. If I resort to these things, however, I am training myself to be still only to the sound of the voice of another or the calling of my culture. While neither of these things are terrible they do nothing to acquaint me with my biggest detractor (and possible helper)...myself.

Quiet stillness isn’t always easy for me. I “use it” as a space within which to beat myself up, to indulge in fantasies of grandeur, and to plan days that are so insanely packed that I can’t keep up with myself. Even still, however, when I do not practice sitting still or giving my mind room to roam it is obvious. I am out of step with myself, my God, and my deepest values.  On the flip side, when I do practice the discipline of quiet attending it makes all the difference in the world.

Wherever you are, grab a snack. Gobble down a mouthful of it. Now, take a moment to take a breath, quiet yourself, then take another bite and attend to that which you are eating. Really pay attention. What does it feel like? Taste like? How does it linger? What does your mouth feel like when you are done? Now do this with your soul, your self, your inner most being. Take a moment. Be still. Pay attention. What do you hear? What do you see? What do you feel? Notice. Attend. Keep trying.

Sometimes the sound of us is the last thing we need. Ranking at the bottom of the list are also the sounds of culture, of status quo, and of the habitual speed at which we move. Perhaps today, right now, in this very moment you can find a way to want just you...not the sound...just you.


the adoptive auntie: helping extended families understand bonding and attachment

It is never easy to become a parent.  It is wonderful, it is miraculous, it is fulfilling.  It is not, however, easy.  Being an adoptive parent takes that lack of ease and multiplies it by 200 (or more).  Nothing is known and you’re jumping into a game you haven’t been present for at the end of the first quarter.  It’s hard.
Being an adopted child isn’t easy either.  It is wonderful, it is miraculous, and it is fulfilling.  It is not, however, easy.  You’ve likely had multiple care givers, possibly insecure attachments, and, many times, too little stimulation.  It’s hard.
Being the extended family of this parent/child mix also lacks ease.  You’ve spent months (sometimes years) praying for, thinking about, helping prepare for, and anticipating becoming an auntie, uncle, grandma, grandpa, cousin, etc to this precious new little one and now all that is expected of you is restraint.  It’s hard.
I know this by experience.  One of the roles I have looked most forward to in life was that of “Auntie.”  When my nephew Ethan came home at seven months from a Russian orphanage, the self control required of me was immense.  I was helped, however, by the knowledge of his needs that my doctoral training had provided.  It strikes me that others don’t have that benefit, so I offer these thoughts to help extended family members think about their roles in their nieces’, nephews’, granchildrens’, and cousins’ lives within the broader context of the adoptive nuclear family.
When most of us encounter new families our first impulse is to want to help.  We want to hold baby so mom can take a shower.  We want to change baby to give mom and dad a break from the frequently required task.  We bring meals.  We take pictures.  And, we can’t wait to be wanted.  We live for the moment that our new little one reaches out to us.  It will mean that they know us, love us, and want us.
For an adopted child and her parents these kinds of helps provide special challenges.  When such a child (especially one who has been in an orphanage...facing an initial primary loss and then a secondary loss in being removed from the orphanage care givers) reaches out to people, they are looking for indiscriminate care.  What they need, instead, is intimate bonding with their parents.  They need ALL of their primary care-giving responses to come from the two people who are “theirs.”  While this is painful in the short term to all of us who are used to feeling loved and important in the life of a newborn by getting to care and cuddle and comfort them, it provides the basis for a life time of loving, securely attached relationships in the child’s future.
Without these initial months of mostly watching the bonding (and supporting the new parents by cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, listening to them, and enthusiastically supporting their very difficult job of being only-care-givers) your precious niece will never be able to develop the relational circuitry in the brain that is required for secure attachment.  Your son or daughter, brother or sister is not trying to be withholding when they request that you not change, feed, or hold your newest family member...they are doing the painfully difficult task of re-wiring their child’s mind and soul to know that it is o.k. to rely on them, that they will not fail them, that they are reliable sources of comfort and basic needs, and that they are their mommy and daddy.
Due to advances in brain imaging, a belief that many of us have held for years is now “provable.”  Secure attachment during the early years of development is crucial for most of the executive functions of the brain to develop.  This means that a persons’ ability to have self control, healthy relationships, attuned communication, and a cohesive sense of self is directly related to the security and consistency of early relationships.  This means that a child needs to be held and have their basic needs met within the context of trusting relationships in order to wire the brain to be able to have those same kinds of relationships later in life.  As you are supporting this kind of attachment for your extended family it can be helpful to remember that there are many ways of feeding, holding, and responding to a child.  While your arms may not carry her, your mind can hold her firmly in your attention.  You can hold her in your prayers and thoughts.  You can feed her with words of affirmation and by nourishing her parents with support as they engage in this exhausting process of bonding.  While these are not the first forms of holding and feeding you may think of, they are real and they are powerful.
It is easy for extended family members to slip up in this period and swoop up a crying baby, to feel as though they are walking on egg shells with parents who are holding firm boundaries, and/or to be hurt when mom and dad don’t involve them in baby care tasks.  It is imperative, however, that we, as this childs’ extended family, work to re-define our important roles.  Mom and dad need all the emotional and physical support we can give them and our best way of loving baby is to point her back to mom and dad at every turn.  In developing a strong love for them she is building the basis that will allow her to love us well later.  Teasing mom and dad about their rigidity and/or “begging for just one hold” does not help here.  Neither does telling them about all the other adopted kids you know who are just fine.  This is the time in life to welcome the opportunity to learn the discipline of waiting.  Your future relationship with this sweet child will be nothing but deeper because of your patience.
It is also important to know that most adoptive families experience a honeymoon period where the attachment and bonding seem to be going so smoothly that none of you remember why in the world there are all these seemingly rigid boundaries around your precious ones’ care.  It is tempting to sneak in boundary violations at this point and it is even tempting for the parents to bend the boundaries, leading to confusion about further interaction guidelines.
It is imperative during these times to be watchful and mindful of why the boundaries were established in the first place.  Your wee one is highly developed in directing himself and his attention to whomever meets his need, he has also learned flexibility in responding to whoever cares for him and to keep his needs quiet.  He is likely relieved and enjoying what may feel to him like a vacation from the monotony and want of the orphanage.  It is likely, however, that he is not done getting all he needs in the way of specific and targeted secure attachment to his primary relational objects...his parents.  Exactly because the boundaries are in place is why he seems to be doing so well.  Don’t make any changes in them until you have done careful considering and soul searching without the pressure of a deadline or audience.  If you feel tempted to ask to provide a basic need (extended family) or to do away with a care guideline you’ve previously set (parent), give it a day or two, lots of discussion, and use discernment over time.
During the months that mom and dad are doing all the responding to baby’s most basic and primary needs (especially feeding, changing, soothing to sleep and waking, and comforting) your role is both large and small.  Large in the ways you never thought and small in the ways you imagined.  Be patient...all too soon your precious new love will be running into your arms and this time of waiting will be but a brief and distant memory. A memory of a time when your new love was wiring his brain to love you well.  Then it will be your turn to love him back...well...


technology half chewed (published in geez magazine)

On a winter day long ago I decided to treat my kids to a pan of hot, bubbly homemade macaroni and cheese. It took forever to grate the cheeses and make the cream sauce. I bought expensive pasta and used real butter on the breadcrumbs that graced the top. Thrilled with my hearty offering I placed it in front of my wee ones who, with wrinkled noses and dumbfounded expressions, declared, “I thought we were having macaroni and cheese.” Much to my dismay, without a blue box and skinny bright orange noodles they had lost their culinary bearings. I find the same is true with technology and relatedness. Texts have replaced conversing and communities are formed in cyberspaces. Kids grow up with screens as siblings of sorts and we carry computers in our pockets to entertain, inform, and direct us. It all feels very “blue box” to me when up against the heartiness of relationship and self knowledge.

Technology is neither a gift nor a curse. It cannot be fairly demonized or praised. It simply is. It empowers its users to harness the masses for relief efforts in Haiti while at the same time reducing the running of the Race for the Cure to mere manipulation of a Second Life avitar. It offers up preschool toys that vibrate, light up, and make sounds. Adolescents plug in to it to keep in touch with their wide spread “friend” community, to explore the world, to “play,” and to try on alternate identities that real life doesn’t allow (oh how easy it is now to take digital photos until just the right one is captured...or created).  Adults get their news from screens, their entertainment from screens, and work on them as well.

Two years ago the Kaiser Family Foundation discovered that the average American was spending 8.5-9 hours a day plugged in to some kind of technology. Today that number has jumped to nearly 11 hours per day, controlling for engagement with more than one technology at a time (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2010). Literature reviews suggest that both family talk time and social practice decrease as technology and screen involvement increase. These realities do not come without consequences to our selves and our relationships. With these ever present distractions we are not developing the kind of sturdy selves that can delay gratification, self soothe, or even self stimulate/initiate effectively. In relational realms we are substituting quantity for quality as our connections move increasingly out of the realm of the physical and into the world of the digital. Everything comes from the outside in in a way that has never before been possible and it is compromising us.

Technology, however, is only a part of the equation. We, the “consumers” (oh how I hate that all too true title) of it, play our role in the havoc that technology can wreak. We are good at many things. Moderation is not one of them. Just as 1950’s families became dependent upon the ease of post war convenience foods only to find themselves struggling with obesity, hypertension, and high cholesterol in the 60’s, so too have we made technology a main dish instead of a side. We swallow it whole not noticing that the number of friends attached to our Facebook profiles rarely equate with a sense of deep relational resource when one is in need. We snack on the camaraderie found in massive multi player games while our intimate, real life relationships suffer from a lack of time and attention. We gobble up the idea that constant digitized connection and stimulation can substitute for meaningful relationships, active imaginations, and an ability to be still. We pretend we can soothe ourselves by surfing the web when, in reality, we are only distracting ourselves from the here and now by going far and wide in our cyber lives.  

By becoming intentional and mindful of the ways in which we engage both technology and our real, touchable lives we can establish norms which will allow us to thrive in both spaces. This requires a realistic and honest assessment of our current technology use, an understanding of what drives that use, and a willingness to break bad habits. Are we spending too much time in cyber worlds or is our real issue the content we are interacting with? Do we push ourselves to maintain our face to face communication skills or are we losing our conversational muscles? Can we sit still? Be quiet? Tolerate boredom? Wait?

I somehow want to make space for balance. I am striving for a sturdy sense of self and an ability to take relational risks, to talk with people as comfortably as I can text them, to have an iPod and be able to sit in silence. I’ve decided that there’s room for blue box and homemade on the same table...sometimes even on the same plate.