I keep meaning to write a post about how well we're all doing. I wake up each day with fresh resolve to sneak away and write about Hula's progress - the letters she's learning, the pounds she's gaining, the friends she's making, and all of the other ways she's thriving after seven months home. But lately, by the time her breakfast eggs have left the pan, she's usually already initiated at least one epic power struggle. Despite all of the progress she's made (or, perhaps maybe because of all the progress) we've entered into a trying phase of Hula testing her boundaries. Every boundary. Over and over. This has resulted in some loooong days, folks. With lots of foot stomping, arm crossing, and eye glaring pouts. It turns out our little girl has quite a stubborn streak! And she knows how to push my buttons faster than any child I've ever taught. Needless to say, by the end of each day I usually opt for chocolate and puppy snuggles on the couch rather than writing a blog post about how well we're all doing.
I've been questioning myself a lot lately, wondering if I'm getting this whole "motherhood thing" right. As I sit in the hallway outside her open door and watch her cry on her bed for the third time in one day, I can't help but wonder if I'm doing right by her. But then, inevitably, her sobs always turn to a whimper, and soon after I usually hear her whisper, "Mama, I'm sorry. I feel bad..." That's when I open up my arms and welcome her into my lap, and we both take a minute to just breathe each other in again. This is how we've ended most days this month. And although it's hard and exhausting, I know it's what she needs right now. She's testing us to make sure we mean what we say, to figure out if we really are going to keep her safe, and if we truly are here forever no matter what. Just last night she nodded her head emphatically and said, "Mama, you still love me even when I make the big, BIG consequence choices." Yes, baby, even then.
These last seven months have presented us all with a very steep learning curve. And although some days are harder than others, I am so proud of our little family and the ways in which we're growing together. Speaking of growing, it seems our little baby really has turned into a young girl! She's gained 4 pounds and grown 3 inches since coming home.
Although she still begs to be carried around in the Ergo (or "the pouch" as she calls it), Hula now has a collection of scooters and bikes that she likes to zip around on during family walks. She loves her pets, and smoothers them in kisses and hugs throughout the day. And when we visited her doctor today for a blood draw (which has always resulted in tears and screams in the past), Hula calmly put on her headphones, turned up the volume on her favorite Shakira song, and gritted her teeth while the nurse inserted the needle into her arm.
I have to laugh when I think back to our initial impressions of Hula, when all we had to go by were her referral photos and a few video clips. We thought she was delicate. We really did. We had no idea what a firecracker she'd really turn out to be. Anyone who meets Hula quickly learns that there is nothing fragile about our girl. In fact, she defines the word 'fierce.' And although that means I'm probably in for at least twenty more years of epic power struggles, I wouldn't have it any other way.
Last week my dear friend Keren sent me an excited text. I met Keren a little over a year ago, when we joined Spence-Chapin's South Africa program. She and her husband have been incredibly supportive throughout our adoption process. They are both South African themselves, though they now live in the states. Keren's husband actually helped open Ethembeni Children's Home many years ago. They stopped by Ethembeni in December of 2011, when they visited South Africa with their two daughters. After we received Hula's referral, Keren looked back through her photos to see if she had any early pictures of our girl, but she didn't find anything. Fast forward to last week, when this sweet picture showed up in my inbox:
I gasped the moment I saw the photo. I knew in an instant that it was our Hula girl. The photo was taken when she was just nine months old. Keren combed through the rest of her files, and found this photo as well, of her younger daughter also playing with Hula:
Just before falling asleep, I received one more excited message from Keren, telling me to check my email. When I did, I couldn't help but cry. She had found a video clip of Hula crawling towards her daughter. A video of Hula smiling and wearing a gigantic diaper. A video of Hula looking healthy and happy and very much loved.
I showed the video to Hula the next morning, and her reaction was absolutely priceless. At first her eyes went wide as a quiet grin spread across her face. Then she asked to watch it again. The second time around, she began to giggle. She then climbed onto my lap and took the phone from me, holding it just inches from her face to watch again. "Mama, that's ME!" she finally said.
Many of us grew up watching countless home videos of ourselves as a baby. We can picture exactly what we looked like, how our squeals sounded, and how our parents reacted to our every move. Similarly, we can look into our parents' faces and see parts of ourselves reflected. I've always known that someday we'll have to help Hula accept all of the loss and unknowns that are part of her story- the years that we weren't there, and the moments and details that no one was able to capture. But now, thanks to Keren, she will at least have this. To me, this video is worth more than gold.
And just like that, we've been home for nine weeks already! The time has flown by, as we knew it would. Next week marks the end of my "maternity leave," and thus the end of our cocooning phase. Although we've all been getting a bit restless these last few weeks, I know that this time home together was exactly what we all needed.
We've learned how to bend and grow together, and can see that Hula now feels safe and secure. She still asks "Am I staying with you forever?" at least once each day, but now does so with a wide, knowing grin. We understand each other's humor now, and have started to stockpile inside jokes. Hula has even started to ask for older siblings! She is happy and healthy and thriving.
I'd like to start sharing updates and snippets of our daily happenings here at home, but realized that I never actually finished sharing about our time in South Africa. And yet, the thought of doing that seems a bit overwhelming--in part because the time we spent there was so much more than just a collection of stories to be shared. It was both the end of a long chased-after dream, and the beginning of a love story more perfect than any I could have ever dreamed up. And so, I've decided to let the photos from our trip speak for themselves.
Hanging out at the Ilali House:
Playing at Zoo Lake Park:
Family Court Day:
Visiting the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Mandela House in Soweto:
Lesedi African Lodge and Cultural Village:
Hula loves yellow. We've been certain of that fact since the day we met. From dresses and markers to food and bath towels, yellow is her preferred choice. I've always loved that her favorite color so closely reflects her personality- bright and strong- but had never put much more thought into it than that. Then I looked through photos from our trip, and saw something that made me pause and catch my breath a bit. It's possible that it's just a fun coincidence, but it's also possible that it's yet another beautiful detail in our daughter's story.
Let me back up just a bit to our second day in Johannesburg. As I mentioned in my last entry, I woke up very early that morning to find our darling girl sprawled between us in some very damp sheets. After stripping the bed (and cursing myself for not putting a "nappy" on her the night before), we all snuggled back up on top of some quilts. While Ryan and I had a hard time falling back asleep, Hula quickly made herself comfortable again.
After getting up, we enjoyed an amazing first breakfast together thanks to our new friends at the Ilali House. Hula had fun exploring the dining room and all the fun things to do in there- watching the water in the coffee pot boil, taking the lid on and off the butter dish, buttering a slice of toast... with every new discovery she would giggle and say "Look!" She also ate her weight in scrambled eggs!
After breakfast, we got a phone call from our social worker, Anna, confirming that we would be able to visit Ethembeni Children's Home later that day. Ethembeni is where Hula spent the first year and a half of her life, before going to live with a foster family. We were eager to visit, since we knew that being there would help us to better retrace Hula's life before us. We were also hopeful that we might be able to meet someone who had known Hula during those early days. While we waited for Anna to arrive, we colored and played in the courtyard.
Anna picked us up at noon and drove us to Ethembeni, which is situated in an inner-city suburb in Johannesburg. Anna explained that many immigrants who come to the city take up shelter in that neighborhood - some in small apartments, some in government-provided housing, and some in abandoned buildings without electricity or running water. Amidst all the concrete and chaos stands Ethembeni, a visibly bright and happy home that provides hope to the community it serves. Upon entering, we were instantly greeted by the staff. We explained why we were there and shared our daughter's name, but initially the staff shook their heads, saying they had no memory of a child with that name. We kept repeating her name, insisting that yes, she had been there. Finally the woman behind the desk turned and said, "Wait a minute...do you mean ______? (insert her full name, with a very long and pronounced rolled R)" We nodded yes, and they all started to buzz around us excitedly.
Soon Anna led us upstairs, where all of the children live. Ethembeni cares for children from birth until age 3, and the children are divided into rooms based on their age. Anna led us down the hall towards the room where Hula spent the first six months of her life.
As we walked down the hallway, we passed by several curious caretakers who smiled and said hello. Two of them stopped us and asked Hula's name. When we responded (rolling the R this time!) one of the women gasped out loud. The woman (who I later learned is named Precious) grabbed my arm and repeated Hula's name excitedly, then turned to the other woman and started talking a mile a minute in her native language. Precious turned back to us, laughing with wide eyes and her hands clasped over her mouth in disbelief. She then took off running down the hallway, yelling into all of the nurseries. Soon all of the caretakers were gathered in a circle around us, calling Hula's name and reaching out for her excitedly. It was clear they not only all remembered her, but also that they all loved her dearly. One was so excited that she reached out her arms to hold Hula. Terrified by all of the commotion, Hula burst into tears. We all then tried to shuffle our way towards the infant nursery while talking excitedly and trying to soothe Hula.
I remember taking a deep breath before entering the infant nursery. Our daughter had been carried through the same doorway nearly four years earlier, as a tiny one-month-old baby just released from the hospital. Ryan took this photo of the sign on the door:
The Daffodil Nursery. Hula's first home--the place where she was loved and cared for during the first six months of her life-- was a large, sunny, yellow room. And in the middle of this bright room, the caretakers pointed out a crib. Hula's crib.
I laced my fingers around the blue metal bars, trying to imagine our sweet girl as a little baby, curled up inside. All around me babies were cooing, sleeping, and staring with wide eyes. Although it was hard to see so many little ones living inside this room, without a family to call their own, it was also humbling to see the love and care that these women were pouring into the children.
As I was looking around the room, Precious came up beside me and excitedly held out her cell phone. I looked at the photo on her phone, then back up at her with eyebrows raised. "Yes! It's her!" she nodded proudly. There, on her phone, was a baby photo of Hula-- a photo, which she told us, she had saved "all these years." At that moment I turned into a crying mess. To have this photo, and this story, for Hula as she grows is just huge. Such a beautiful gift.
Through my tears I managed to thank Precious. We then visited the other rooms, and stopped to play with the toddlers for awhile before leaving. As we were standing on the terrace outside, one little girl with a head full of braids came toddling over to Ryan. She walked right towards him and buried her head in his legs. He rubbed her back for awhile and tried to talk to her, but she just stood there with her arms wrapped around him. Before leaving, he had to pick her up and hand her to one of the caretakers. Seeing the look on his face, I knew in an instant that we would be back - maybe not to Ethembeni, but that our family would continue to grow through adoption. There are just so many kids waiting. And so, with Hula clinging tightly to my neck, we headed back down the stairs, out to the car, and on to our second night as a family of three.
You can learn more about Ethembeni Children's Home by watching the video below. If you feel inspired to support their work, you can click here to make a donation towards nappies, medicine, toiletries, or to sponsor a bed for a child in need.