Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Sibling rivalry, six months in


For most of the last year, I've had an idea stewing in my brain. I'd write a memoir about this whole experience of adopting virtual twins. Ed is rolling his eyes right now and internally accusing me of adopting for material to write a book, but adding two toddlers to a family is something no sane person would do for the sake of research. You can take that however you want. But I figured that as long as I wasn't rewriting either of the novels I wrote in grad school or starting some new fiction project, I might as well rework some of my essays and blog posts and use them as the starting ground for a memoir (of course, this hasn't happened, because every time I open my laptop during the day someone starts climbing on me, and right now I'm writing while two babies maintain eye contact with me from their beds in separate rooms). Anyway, I even had a name for this theoretical memoir all picked out-- Are They Twins?

The funny thing is, after six months home, no one has asked me if they're twins, not even once. Most conversations with well-meaning, nosy strangers go something like this:

"Are they adopted?"
"How far apart in age are they?"
"Six months."
"Are they really brother and sister?"
To which I answer, "They are now," or "No," or "You do the math," or "Who knows, maybe their dad got around," depending on the day and how snarky I feel.

I really expected that people would automatically assume they were twins. I often dress them in coordinating outfits, and think they look enough alike that they could be siblings. Add in the whole "Chinese among white people" thing and I figured it would be a natural expectation.

But they don't seem like twins. For one thing, Rose is three inches taller and six pounds heavier than Eli. When we adopted her, she shot up from 13 to 30 pounds in a year, and I assumed that Eli would do the same thing. But he weighed 23 pounds when we adopted him, and he's tipping the scales at 25 1/2 as of today, which isn't a huge weight gain in nearly six months.

Even more than their physical size, Rose outweighs him in personality. Before we had her, based solely on stereotypes, I imagined that the daughter we would adopt from China would be petite and reserved, possibly a little bit shy and retiring. Instead we got a big girl with an even bigger personality. She's so loud. She screams whenever something doesn't meet with her immediate approval. Even when she couldn't communicate her wants with words, she didn't have much problem making them known. She jumps and hits and runs and barrels through life with an energy that can be exhausting. From the moment she met Eli, she's been unsure whether he was friend or foe. These days, he's usually a friend, but she can break out the claws in a flash if she ever feels threatened.

There's something I hate about this way of characterizing my own kids. One of Rose's greatest strengths is that she's a fighter. It's probably the quality that allowed her to survive on the cold April night when she was abandoned, and it's certainly the quality that got her through the next eleven months in the orphanage. It will undoubtedly serve her well later in life, But she doesn't need to fight in the here and now, and sometimes I think she doesn't know how to turn it off. I know that when she's in preschool, I'm going to get calls from the teacher about how she pushes other kids on the playground or butts to the head of the line. I do my best to put her in time outs and time ins, to give her plenty of one-on-one love, and praise her strengths, but I know that the fighter will always be there.

My dad grew up in a house of four boys. He was the oldest, also known as "the smart one." There was an "athletic one," and a "funny one," and another one (I can't remember how he was characterized). And even though they had parents who loved them and all grew up to be good fathers and productive members of society, I know it bugged my dad and his brothers that they were circumscribed and reduced to a single dimension. I don't want to do that to Rose and Eli.

But it would be denying the reality of the dynamic not to admit that Rose has been the aggressor during the last six months. Six months from now, the story might be entirely different. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that she is physically larger, that Eli couldn't walk when we got him, and that she felt threatened when her position was usurped. Then Eli spent five of the last six months in a series of nine casts, which only increased the imbalance of power. It's been a great blessing to all of us that he's been so mild and easygoing about his state (whiny, yes, at times, but generally, very easygoing). I can barely get Rose into her car seat, I couldn't imagine trying to strap her into a Ponseti brace for eighteen hours a day. I love that he is so sweet, so snuggly. Rose has been home for a year and a half, and she still doesn't voluntarily give hugs and kisses, but Eli loves to kiss, and one of his first phrases was "lub you." They just seem so opposite in so many ways, and sometimes I wish Eli would stand up and clock her hard on the head to let her know that she can't take advantage of him. Then I feel guilty for feeling that way, and for stealing her opportunity for babyhood by adding him to our family.

Still, they are definitely more friends than foes. Last night at bedtime, Rose was angry (as usual) at being put in bed. She was lying there, screaming, big, fat tears running down her red cheeks. It was time to put Eli to bed too, but he stood next to her, stroking her head, trying to help her feel better. As I sit here typing this, she's calling out "bah," from her bedroom, which he returns with a "bah," from his bedroom, and then they both giggle and do it again. When she wakes up in the morning, the first thing she wants to do is go find "Ly." This sometimes backfires-- like today when they'd both been down for their naps for 30 minutes and I was just finishing up some Segullah emails, and heard crying from upstairs. I came up to find her in his crib with him. She must have had a hard time falling asleep on her own and went to find a little companionship, waking him from a deep sleep. (And you didn't want to be anywhere near my house from 3-6pm tonight because they were both completely evil). I love that they are now great playmates for each other, at least until I turn my back.

At two, Rose is feisty and Eli is gentle, and I recognize that these characterizations are in large part in opposition to each other. If they weren't feisty and gentle, maybe they would be the early bird and the night owl, or the smart one and the dumb one (I'm so glad I don't think of them as smart and dumb). I don't think admitting that at this stage in their lives they exhibit these qualities is necessarily a bad thing, but I also hope that I'm not so rigid in my thinking that I won't allow them to redefine themselves. Maybe some day they will be mistaken for twins, and maybe they never will, but one thing is for sure-- they are brother and sister. Really brother and sister. Because over the last year and a half, the thing I've learned again and again is that it isn't blood that makes a family. It's living with, and loving, and yes, sometimes hating on each other. And they've had plenty of that over the last six months, with a whole lot of togetherness ahead of them.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Book Review: Malavita by Tonino Benacquista

Title: Malavita
Author: Tonino Benacquista
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Library Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 or R for language, violence

When Fred Blake and his family move to a small town in Normandy, no one in town is prepared for what they're getting. Yes, they're getting American expatriates, but Fred is not the writer he claims to be. Oh, he writes, but instead of writing about the WWII invasions, he's really writing his memoirs about his times as a mob boss. He was such a successful mob boss, in fact, that when he and his family entered witness protection he had a sixteen million dollar bounty on his head and became the only person ever to be relocated internationally.

But instead of being grateful for his family life and his relocation, Fred (and the rest of his family) do whatever they can to thwart the efforts of their protectors. And because he's spending so much time writing down his story, it's almost irresistible for him to start talking about it too. And pretty soon, the mob comes knocking.

If you like books or films that treat violence lightly (think Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill) than you would probably enjoy Malavita. That is not the kind of story I like, and I also felt that it took a long time for Benacquista to get beyond laying the backstory and into the actual events of the novel. The novel is being made into a film, and I think I'll pass. I can already imagine the carnage on the streets of Normandy.