Some Better Ideas Than #NoHairSelfie for #WorldCancerDay

Smith and Sam

 

Oh sure, it looked romantic and amazingly supportive when Samantha’s hunky boyfriend Smith Jerrod did it on Sex and the City, but shaving your head, or worse – simply plugging a photo of your mug into the #NoHairSelfie app that photo-shops a bald version of you – isn’t really showing support for cancer patients, in my opinion. Unless your spouse or dear friend or child has expressed consent in such a personal statement, you are running the risk of offending cancer patients and survivors, like this courageous woman who just recently lost her hair. I’m not speaking for all cancer patients and I do see some of the merits in actually shaving your head for a spouse, child or close friend, to make them feel less unique in their appearance or to encourage people to donate money. I just find a mass movement of strangers trying on baldness with an electronic app really minimizes the painful layers of what losing your hair via chemotherapy feels like, both physically and emotionally.  It has rankled me from the first moment I heard of it. Why do I feel I’m entitled to even have an opinion on this movement and its impact on cancer patients and survivors?

Because I am one.

At the age of four, I had emergency surgery after a fall from a swing left me with overwhelming pain. The doctors assumed I had ruptured my spleen, but instead found a kidney busted open with a previously-undiagnosed cancerous tumour that had burst on impact after my fall. My kidney was destroyed and needed removal, and in the words of the doctor who finally told my parents why they had been waiting for hours – I was a very sick little girl. Subsequent radiation treatments and chemotherapy followed, to ensure stray cancer cells that were released when the tumour burst didn’t quietly take up residence elsewhere in my body. I don’t remember much about the radiation part (except the legacy of infertility it left me) but I have vivid memories of the chemotherapy; of how the drug would wind through the IV tube and as soon as it entered my body, I would begin vomiting and wouldn’t stop for most of the day. Chemotherapy isn’t just poison for the cancer, after all.

Fresh Outta Nephrectomy Surgery

Fresh Outta Nephrectomy Surgery

One of my most painful set of memories of this time revolve around the loss of my hair. In today’s medical advancements, some cancer patients are lucky enough to avoid complete hair loss, but back then, hardly anyone escaped it; even four year old little girls. My mom woke me one morning and found almost my entire head of hair over my pillowcase. It had happened overnight while I slept and I still recall her trying so valiantly to be brave for my benefit, yet failing and crying in front of me. Now that I have a young daughter of my own, I cannot fathom how my mom got through all of the treatments and crying (mine and hers) and needles and vomit and worry. She deserves a medal, for sure. Also at that time (1975) wigs were not much of widespread  fashion statement and were in scarce supply. My parents had me fitted for an old-lady wig that resembled the hairstyle Maude sported, minus the style. Suffice to say, wearing a wig at that age was no easy task and led to other painful situations of kids teasing me and even threatening to take my wig from my head.

Yeah, I WISH they had taken this wig. And burned it.

Yeah, I WISH they had taken this wig. And burned it.

Eventually my hair grew back and life went on, but those childhood experiences changed me in innumerable ways. I still have very strong reactions to seeing children who are wearing scarves around their heads, and I can’t watch any movies or TV programs where children are terminally ill. So when I saw the campaign for #NoHairSelfie and some people on social media proudly posting photos of themselves smiling with their hair electronically removed by an app, or urging their readers and social media followers to “celebrate” World Cancer Day, my reaction was visceral; I cried, I raged inwardly, shouting at them that losing your hair is no reason to grin proudly, and cancer is definitely not anything to “celebrate”.

I get the intentions, I really do. I just don’t think much thought or sensitivity was put into this campaign with respect to how it might make some cancer patients and survivors feel. My overwhelming gut response is a desire to scream at the images of healthy people pretending to be bald “YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT IT’S LIKE.” And they don’t. An app can’t begin to give you the experience of feeling completely abnormal and a freak of nature when all of your hair suddenly leaves your body. It doesn’t provide the fun of having constant insecurities that everybody knows you’re wearing a wig or that your wig has shifted unnaturally or that it looks fake or doesn’t suit you. All those smiling faces being uploaded into the app? They look healthy and happy. People who have lost their hair to cancer are not healthy and rarely look so. Some may be fighting their damndest to hang on to some of life’s happiness, but rest assured they aren’t happy about losing their hair or having cancer.

Even people who are “brave” enough to actually shave their real heads still aren’t experiencing the full range of physical and emotional traumas that chemotherapy often reduces its victims to. I have far more respect for those who patiently grow out their hair and cut it off to donate for wigs for cancer patients and I am baffled that a prestigious establishment with powerful public engagement such as The Princess Margaret Hospital* wouldn’t see this as a much better campaign to invest their marketing efforts with. Wigs are expensive and real hair for them is not easy to come by, even if you want to donate your own. Hair has to be a specific length and cannot have dyes or chemical treatments in it.

Hair, Returning

Hair, Returning

While I understand the #NoHairSelfie has attracted some worthy attention and awareness for cancer patients with hair loss, I still feel that if you really want to help cancer patients, donate your money, time or supportive kindness. Volunteer, fundraise, or simply make some freezable meals for the cancer patient you know in your life. These are meaningful, helpful actions that have direct impact on those struggling with cancer or survivors who live in fear of relapse, unlike posting a picture of yourself and counting your “likes” using a hashtag originally meant for REAL cancer patients to reach out and support one another. Think about your actions, not just about jumping on the bandwagon because it sounds fun and all your social media friends are doing it.

It’s Word Cancer Day. My thoughts and prayers go out to all the brave fighters currently battling for their life and health, for all the survivors who have won, and for all those who tragically could not overcome this terrible disease.

 

*Please be assured that while I don’t agree with the campaign of baldness, I absolutely support The Princess Margaret Hospital in their efforts to support cancer patients. I was once a patient at the old hospital and have visited the new one, and I know the world-class establishment is full of hard-working and dedicated health professionals who strive to give the best physical and emotional care to every patient they treat.

 

The Realities of Trans-Racial Adoption

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Every so often, parents via adoption are confronted with their own complete and utter inadequacy. Oh sure, biological parents are too, I know, but I’m talking that extra layer of baggage that our children carry around that we must also deal with regularly – the hurt and pain of their pre-adoption experiences that never leave them, no matter how much we love and care for them.

Two nights ago, Baby Girl awoke and without getting into the minutia of the situation, ended up having a typhoon-sized temper tantrum at midnight that lasted a full hour and woke up our entire household, if not our entire street. Yeah – THAT kind of tantrum.

It’s interesting in retrospect to analyze how her behavior reflects so much of what I’ve read in adoption psychology books, yet somehow in the moment – I am completely unable to see that, nor am I able to draw on my research about how to deal with her adoption/attachment-related behavioral challenges.

So, of course when the tantrum started, instead of recognizing that she was feeling fear and insecurity related to recent circumstances that were putting her in touch with her pre-adoption experiences, all I saw was a bratty little kid looking for attention at midnight and waking me and the rest of the family up to get it. So I snapped. I shouted at her and grounded her from TV – which is a consequence that punishes ME far more than her, trust me. I threw up my hands and enlisted Huzbo, even – who did the same thing as me.

Well, we quickly found out the next night that our strategy stank, when Baby Girl woke up at 1am and proceeded to behave in the exact same way as the night before, despite how much shit she had gotten into.

I began to throw out threats of more severe consequences, which only served to both upset and incense her further. Huzbo was far more furious than the previous night and it was in the middle of this complete shit-storm that I realized something: her behavior was not something she was trying to do against us. She was attempting to reach out for help to deal with feelings that she did not have the skills to verbalize for us. The threats we were throwing at her were not intimidating to her – we were giving her choices, and when given the choice between watching TV or receiving love and assurance if she could get it via screaming and crying – she would always throw TV to the wolves.

I suddenly remembered a line I had read somewhere:

It’s usually when they are behaving in a way that it’s hardest to love them that they need our love demonstrated the most.

So I crawled into bed with the screeching, snot-nosed cyclone of hurt that was my daughter and held her. Oh, she resisted at first – she’s a fierce little example of the “flight or fight” response that many children who were adopted demonstrate in stressful situations – but she soon calmed and I was able to speak gently with her and give words to the overwhelming feelings she was having. When she began to weep and her little body sagged down onto the bed beside me, I knew I had done the right thing and had made the correct assumptions about the sources of her seemingly unacceptable behavior.

Flash ahead to yesterday morning, where I was putting her hair in pigtails for the dance class she was going to. Out of nowhere came this question:

“Do you wish you had gotten a white baby in your tummy instead of me?”

(WHY do they always ask these kinds of questions when you’re either in a public bathroom or in a hurry to get somewhere?)

I assured her that even though I had tried to make a baby in my womb before we had started our adoption journey, it was not because that was my preference, but because it was just what parents usually did when they wanted to have a child. I attempted to make her understand that it wasn’t about what I wanted more – that it was simply what most people do, yet I’m not sure I succeeded in convincing her she wasn’t a consolation prize in my efforts to become a mother.

Never a child to leave it at just one zinger, she followed up with:

“Would you have liked it better if I had white skin?”

I got down on my knees and looked her in the eye and told I would NEVER want her to have white skin, because if she did, she wouldn’t be my Baby Girl. That her beautiful black skin was a part of who she is, and that we did not care what colour skin our child had when we were deciding to adopt. I assured her that we didn’t love her DESPITE of her black skin, but BECAUSE of it. That we embrace the differences between her and us, but we also feel a very deep connection to her that we might not feel if she had white skin, because she would be an entirely different person. I assured her that if we had wanted a white baby so badly, we most certainly would have adopted one.

This seemed to appease her, as she went off to dance class with no further questions, but the conversation has been sitting in my mind, rattling the cage ever since then.

Do white parents experience their children asking them if they’d prefer their kids to have black skin?

Of course not.

Do bio parents experience their children raging in the middle of the night because they are feeling a hard-wired pain that occurred when they were separated from the mother who gave birth to them?

Never.

Do trans-racial adoptive parents ever feel guilty that they brought a black child into a white family?

Often.

It’s a tough, heart-kicking job we signed up for, as trans-racial adoptive parents. I’m not sure we knew back then how agonizing it would be at times.

But I wouldn’t change it for anything, because at the end of the tantrum and questions – I’ve got the most remarkable, tough, strong, joyful, happy, intelligent, gorgeous, stubborn little person who calls me “mommy”.

Sadly, my Baby Girl is the one who has so much more to contend with.

 

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What I Learned

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) 39th Annual conference, which was held near my home in Toronto, Ontario, Canada (co-sponsored by The Adoption Council of Ontario and The Adoption Council of Canada).  Previously, my conference attendance had been limited to work-related conferences.  I didn’t know what to expect and was very undecided about attending the conference at all, despite its proximity to my home.  I finally registered 6 days prior to the start of the conference and set my mind into “student” mode, which is no easy feat, considering my mind these days is more focused on what time camp ends and what time Wild Kratts comes on TV and what are we having for dinner.  To say I was a bit nervous to venture back into the world of intelligent, coherent adults for 3 full days was an understatement.

However, despite the financial, physical and emotional toll the 3 days took on me, it was a fantastic experience.  Here are ten of the most important things I learned from this conference:

1.  I am not alone.  There are LOTS of people out there that worry themselves sick about attachment, attachment disorders, behavioral issues, post-adoption support, developmental delays and the many other challenges (and joys!) that fill the minds of parents via adoption, adoptees and professionals working in the field of adoption.  It felt good to come together in one place with so many others who get it.   People that I didn’t have to explain to what those previous words all mean.  People that I didn’t have to provide a long, in-depth tutorial to about what adoption means to all parties involved.   I learned the feeling of community.

2.  Knowledge is power.  Education = knowledge.  The more I listened and learned, the more I felt empowered to be the best possible parent I can be, and isn’t that what being any kind of parent is all about, but especially parents through adoption?  As parents of children we adopted, we cannot simply pretend we gave birth to our children and parent them accordingly.  Any adoptive parent who does this is simply begging for trouble and causing their child undue hardship.  I have always been an avid reader of books and online resources, but this conference provided me with a new forum of knowledge – information provided by professionals working in adoption-related fields, adoptees and other parents through adoption put a voice and face to some of the information that I’ve read.  In addition, the conference provided me with new information that has once again made the wheels of my mind turn.  There is a reason many professions require annual educational updates.  If the teachers that spend all day teaching our children must attend educational workshops and seminars, why do parents think they should be exempt from continued education?  We owe it to our children to continuously strive to increase our knowledge about how to love and support our children in the manner that is best-suited to their needs.  Only education can do this.

3.  ALL children who were adopted have special needs.  This isn’t really a new thing I learned, but the conference did indeed confirm for me what I have told many people – do not believe for one second that a child who was adopted has no special needs.  They may be invisible needs, but their losses are hardwired into their brains even if they were adopted on the day of their birth (this is a scientific fact).  Even in the absence of any physical special needs, these losses require support, understanding and often  special parenting techniques that don’t apply to bio children.

4.  Parenting a child you’ve adopted is hard work.  And it’s ok to say that.  And it’s ok to feel frustrated and angry and sad and resentful.  Just because you didn’t get pregnant and give birth to your child doesn’t mean that you’re not entitled to feel ALL the same negative emotions that biological parents feel.  Just because you travelled ALL those miles to get your child or you spent ALL that money in procedural fees or waited ALL that time for your referral, it doesn’t mean that you have to be unbelievably in love with your child 150% of the time and overjoyed with the joys of parenting 180% of the time because, hey – this is what YOU wanted, isn’t it?  Wrong.  Adoptive parents can feel ALL the same frustrations as bio parents, and in fact, can and will often feel MORE frustrations because parenting a child you’ve adopted has about 10 more layers of emotional baggage than parenting a bio child.  If a 2 year old bio child is having a tantrum – it’s simply “the terrible 2’s”.  If a 2 year old child that was adopted is having a tantrum, his or her parents must consider yes, “the terrible 2’s” but also whether or not the child is having a flashback to some previous trauma, whether the child is having an attachment issue, whether the child is feeling rejected because something triggered the primal sense of loss and rejection that is hardwired in their brains or a cornucopia of many other possible reasons for a tantrum that just don’t apply to bio kids.  Sadly, this doesn’t end when the terrible 2’s end.  This is a LIFELONG suitcase of parenting considerations that parents via adoption must continuously open up and rummage through to try to support and understand their child.

5.  I am not good at getting up at 5:30am to catch a commuter train into the city for 8am and sitting through 8 hours of workshops and then catching a commuter train back home to get home by 8pm to fall into bed exhausted and do it all over again.  Times 3.  Comfortable shoes is an oxymoron when you attend a conference and aren’t staying at the venue the conference is being held at.  I will not do that again simply to save money.  Despite wearing orthopedic flip-flops (they aren’t quite as ugly as they sound) on the first day of the conference, I also stupidly decided to walk from the train station to the conference venue instead of taking the subway.  My lazy fragile feet not-so-gently reminded me with numerous blisters that this was not something they were used to doing, and for the following 2 days, continued to vent their frustrations by refusing to enjoy wearing ANY of the various shoes I tried to put on them.  Ok feet and body – I get it.  Next conference will require physical and stamina training ahead of time.

6.  There are many kinds of adoptions.  This was not a new lesson, either.  Each one of them has its own unique circumstances and challenges.  Each one has its own elements of beautiful love and support and understanding, along with its own pain and sad history.  No kind of adoption is better or easier than another adoption, just different.  Kinda like people – we’re all different, yet we’re all the same.   Didn’t want to miss an opportunity to reiterate one of the running themes of my writing and I did find it very interesting that this theme also applies to adoptions.

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7.  Children who were adopted grow up to become adults that can feel a complex range of emotions, from feeling really good about certain aspects of their adoption to also simultaneously feeling angry and bitter about certain aspects of their adoption.  But every single one of them has some sort of residual pain.  Sometimes the pain has nothing to do with the parenting, sometimes it has everything to do with the parenting.  Sometimes the adult adoptee’s pain is a sad mixture of their pre-adoption history, their adoption circumstances, their lack of post-adoption support and sometimes even their own personal emotional challenges.  I met adult adoptees who were positive, happy, well-adjusted humans who saw adoption through positive eyes, even while they openly shared their sometimes painful memories of their lives.  I met adult adoptees who were angry, bitter, resentful humans lashing out at the world for all the pain they had endured and who were looking for someone, something to blame for all the hurt they have inside.  ALL of their pain is valid and each adoptee is entitled to deal with that pain in the manner that feels right for them personally, even if it makes other people uncomfortable sometimes.

8.  Adoptive parents need strong egos.  That adoptee pain I just talked about?  We take it on.  We absorb it.  These are our children and when they hurt, we hurt.  Sometimes we cause that hurt.  Sometimes we cause it knowingly, sometimes unintentionally.  Sometimes our children blame us for that pain.  Sometimes we deserve that blame, sometimes we don’t.  Sometimes we can help our children with that pain, sometimes we cannot.  But in order to help our children, we need to be able to separate our ego from our parenting.  Not an easy task.  Not an easy thing to support your child on a journey that we did not create.  Not easy to accept our child’s hurt yet not feel guilty for causing it somehow, even if our child thinks we did.  Not an easy thing to hear a child say “you’re not my REAL parent” or “I want to find my birth family” or “I love my birth family more”.  Not an easy thing to self-reflect and ask ourselves “Am I doing enough?” to help our children cope with the pain of their past, their losses, their traumas, their racial differences from their family and community.  Ego gets in the way.  A lot.  For all parents, not just adoptive ones.  But once again – the onion of adoptive parenting has many more layers to be peeled back than that of bio parenting.  Strong egos that are willing to stand aside for the emotional growth and healing of our children are mandatory.

9.  There is a HUGE demand for post-adoption support that does not seem to be getting fulfilled right now.  For myself personally, I have not felt this because I belong to an amazing support network of families who also adopted from South Africa.  The conference helped me to once again recognize how very special and important this network is to me, my daughter and our family (in fact, our network actually won an award at the conference for being such a great network!)  In addition, our social worker/adoption practitioner has 30+years of experience and a wealth of resources that he has been very helpful in providing to us, as needed.  I myself am very resourceful in researching via books, groups, professionals, blogs – you name it.  When I want to know about something, I go after it like a dog sniffing for his buried bone.  However, I learned at the conference that not all adoptees or parents of adoptees are so fortunate.  There seems to be a sad gap in the area of support for both parents who have adopted and adoptees themselves.  It seems that resources for payment do exist in some larger urban areas, but public resources are in limited supply everywhere.  This is sad and needs to change.  As stated previously, being a parent through adoption is hard.  Being an adoptee is hard.  Public awareness and funding needs to be directed towards the needs of these groups so that proper support is available.

10.  Listening to the stories of other parents who have adopted as well as the stories of adoptees, coupled with listening to the advice of professionals on how to cope, deal, support, understand and help our children with their myriad of challenges was extremely heavy emotionally.  In addition to the disruption to my usual sleep/activity patterns, I absorbed buckets of other people’s emotional burdens while tapping a direct pipeline into my own and my daughter’s.  It was hard.  It was emotional.  It was depressing at times, although it was also sometimes very uplifting and inspirational.  It was overwhelming and has taken me 4 days just to be able to talk about it and write about it.  My brain and my heart are still working together to process all of the information and experiences I received.  I grossly underestimated this aspect of the conference prior to attending, but I’m not sure how knowing this now will help prepare in advance for the next one.  I think that like adoptive parenting, this is just another thing that we jump into with both feet and slog through emotionally, hoping we are doing our best and that we will come out on the other side with some useful knowledge and understanding along with the ability to be the best parents we can be to our children.

321664_10151582204946858_1070289562_n[1]            Would I do it all over again?

Youbetcha.

My Baby Girl deserves the best that I can give her.

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