My sister tells me that I parent like the war correspondent I used to be. I go into this mode with my 2 ½ year old son whom I adopted from Morocco as an infant. I rarely panic and try to keep my head down, especially when there are blocks involved. A public tantrum? Whatever. I’ve survived Al Qaeda. Poop in the tub? Please. I’ve embedded with the U.S. Marines. Clean it up, bleach the porcelain, move on.
But admittedly, I am a bit rattled right now. A single parent by choice, I am preparing to adopt a second baby from Morocco at the end of the year before my son turns 3. Friends have kindly suggested that my spirited toddler who has been going through a hitting stage for almost a full year now is going to love being a big brother. I smiled the first couple of times I heard this. Now I cut them off. “He’s probably going to hate it.”
I’m a realist. Reporters tend to be. My son is a young 2, developmentally, a mama’s boy who is the center of my attention. What about sharing me is he going to love? I mean, really?
So I am faced with a situation that is common for parents expecting a second child, preparing my toddler for the arrival a sibling. Only I am adopting. There’s no baby growing inside of me to give my son a physical connection. There’s no due date. There’s nothing tangible at all except some rearrangement of furniture in what will be the baby’s new room, which my son views merely as expanded play space for him. He’s completely taken over the room for Baby Brother, or Akhooya Elsagheer in Iraqi Arabic, the other language we speak in our house.
“This is challenging from a development lens,” said Debbie Riley, chief executive for the Center for Adoption Support and Education in Burtonsville, Md. “It’s so ambiguous. A toddler can’t understand the underpinnings of adoption.”
Indeed, many of the resources I’ve sought to prepare me for the arrival of Baby Brother (the orphanage has not yet matched me with a baby, but he almost certainly will be a boy) seem geared toward older children, pre-school age or above. Children who aren’t still in diapers and sleeping in the one crib in the house, a hand-me-down from my twin sister, Jenny, the mother of four boys and my main consultant, therapist and expert for all parenting matters.
I recently scrolled through a list of books on an adoption Web site for preparing children for the adoption of the sibling. Most of the books were written for children who are older or at least have more comprehension than a toddler whose favorite storylines are no more complicated than Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? and Is Your Mama A Llama? I picked up one new book, I’m a Big Brother by Joanna Cole and Maxie Chamblis that is not specific to adoption but leaves out the pregnancy and hospital part. Riley also recommended the Sesame Street classic, Susan and Gordon Adopt a Baby. It’s not a perfect fit because there is a Gordon to go with a Susan in the book, but we watch Sesame Street in our house, and I’m eager to follow the advice of an expert.
I had already started reading a book to my son that I picked up my from correspondent travels, Be safe with my brother and I, a book in Kurdish and English in which Big Brother warns Baby Brother not to play with electrical wires or he will get electrocuted. (There is a picture of Baby Brother getting shocked.) Big Brother also tells Little Brother not to open drawers, jump on the bed or put crayons in his mouth. The problem in my house is that Big Brother still does all of those things.
A few weeks ago, I came up with my own idea, which I know is not original because the spokeswoman at the Cabbage Patch Kids Babyland General Hospital in Cleveland, Georgia, assured me it was not.
I remembered that my sister had a Cabbage Patch doll as a girl, and she came with adoption papers. Wilomena Farley. You don’t forget your Cabbage Patch doll’s name. Plenty of parents prepare for the arrival a new baby by giving their toddlers a doll. I like the idea of a doll that was adopted like my son was, like his sibling will be. My sister and I also were adopted, which is the reason she saved up her money to buy, er, adopt Wilomena when those dolls were all the rage in the 1980s when we were growing up.
The problem with finding a doll for my son is that I could not find one that looked Moroccan. My son is Arab. He looks bi-racial but, in fact, is Caucasian. He has dark, soft curly hair, beautiful light brown skin and these dark brown eyes that laugh when he smiles. When I searched for an Arab baby doll, I found a few pricey dolls that come in traditional dress more typical of an Arab who lives in Saudi Arabia. My sister suggested I look for a doll at Lakeshore Learning, a California-based toy company that makes a line of washable ethnic dolls: white, black, Hispanic and Asian. There also are dolls in traditional dress from Ghana, Mexico, China and India. The dolls retail for about $17.
But I was stuck on the Cabbage Patch doll because it came with adoption papers. Cabbage Patch dolls, the mass market versions with vinyl faces, sell for $10 to more than $40 at big box retailers. I searched a bit, but still didn’t find what I wanted. I ended up finding a new doll, still in the box, on eBay for $11.50. It was listed as “African American Male Cabbage Patch Kid.” It looked a bit like my son.
Margaret McLean, director of corporate communications for Cabbage Patch Kids, said there actually is no African American line of Cabbage Patch dolls.
When Xavier Roberts invented the “Little People” dolls, the first hand-sewn Cabbage Patch babies in 1976, he had a “vanilla” version and a “fudge” version. McLean said dolls, which were mass marketed starting in 1983, now include other ethnicities, including mocha and espresso.
My son’s doll, which we call “Baby Brother,” actually came with the name, Jon Bailey. He was born on Aug. 9, which is probably around the time that Baby Brother was born, given the age I expect him to be if I travel to Morocco in December, as I hope to, pending my approval from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
My son wants nothing to do with Jon Bailey. When they met, he smelled him and then tried to bite his nose. He then tossed poor Jon Bailey aside. I try to involve Jon Bailey in my son’s play. He stays in the car seat in the new baby’s room, in a corner. I talk about how we adopted Jon Bailey, how exciting it is for my son to be a brother and how important it is for him to do “nice touches” with Jon Bailey.
My son doesn’t fully comprehend but he knows this: Jon Bailey is a fake. He is not really Baby Brother. And besides, Jon Bailey doesn’t stack like a block, roll like a ball or line up nicely like a set of bowling pins, one of my son’s favorite things to do on our dining room table.
Kichelle Coleman, director of adoption and foster care services at Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital region, encouraged me not to give up. In her polite way, she also told me to ease up.
“Ask him what he would do for the baby,” she said. “Make sure it is more about him. You don’t want him to feel like he has to be nice. It doesn’t have to do with adoption. Make it about what would big brothers do. Have fun. Be silly. Make them laugh. All that other responsibility is mom’s responsibility. Mom’s going to take care of that baby. Make it lighter.”
My sister shared something she picked up at a sibling class at a birth center as she and her husband were expecting their second child.
You tell the baby to “hold on” and “not now, I need to pay attention to Big Brother,” she said. “The baby doesn’t know or care or understand what you are saying, but the toddler hears you not always putting the baby first.”
I like that advice, too, and this morning I tried it out. While my son and I were playing with plastic dinosaurs in Baby Brother’s room, I called out to the Cabbage Patch doll in the corner.
“Hold on, Jon Bailey, not now,” I said. “Mama needs to pay attention to Big Brother.”
It was a start.
Jackie Spinner was a staff writer for The Washington Post for 14 years. She is now an assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago.
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