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Settling In

In the third part of our family’s adoption odyssey, our new daughters help us rediscover the joy in everyday moments.By Kathryn Reiss and Tom Strychacz



When we're adopted, can we call you Mom and Dad?" Angie asked eagerly, on the first night she slept at our house.

"We hope you will," we replied, "when you're ready." Our two new girls had known us only a few weeks, and we didn't want them to feel rushed.

"Okay," said Angie as Kathryn leaned over to tuck her in. "Goodnight…Mom."

We were touched by how eager Alexandra and Angie were to fit in, how much they wanted Fost/Adopt to work. But how long would it take, we wondered, before they truly settled in to the rhythms of our family's life?

Getting busy
Those first weeks of summer with our new daughters were a flurry of visits to relatives, friends, museums, the zoo, the beach. It was one long, glorious party. The girls bonded with our three birth children and soaked up many new experiences. But life isn't only about sightseeing and parties; eventually, routine reasserts itself. We discovered that, for Alexandra and Angie, "routine" wasn't so simple.

"Go get busy," Kathryn urged the girls one afternoon when our birth children were occupied elsewhere. The two were wandering aimlessly around the house, and we were exasperated.

"Okay..." they said, hovering near us in the kitchen. "Busy…with what?"

"Whatever you want."

They looked at each other. "Want me to clean the kitchen?" asked Alexandra. "Would you like a foot massage?" Angie inquired.

We might have jumped at such offers had they come from Isabel, Daniel, or Nicholas, but these felt odd. Alexandra and Angie had been with us for a month now. They knew where the toys, books, and games were. Why were they at such loose ends?

We knew that, amid the chaos of their early home life, and also in foster care, our girls' lives had been filled with television. It took us a while to realize that they simply didn't know how else to spend their time. We valued outdoor play, crafts, reading, games of the imagination, and we wanted the same for our new daughters. (They tell us now they were relieved to have the TV turned off at our house, and didn't miss it.)

So that day Kathryn sent Angie off to read a book and suggested that Alexandra build a castle. When Alexandra looked baffled, Kathryn led her to the playroom and dumped out a basket of wooden building blocks. Alexandra still seemed puzzled, and, after a moment, asked, "You mean… you want me to put them all back in the basket?"

"I want you to play with the blocks!" Kathryn was distressed by this child's expectation of mindless "busy work." She reached for a small wooden animal. "Look, can you build this tiger a beautiful castle? I'll come and see it when you're finished."

Alexandra contemplated the tiger for a long moment, then nodded. "I'll try."

Non-trivial pursuits
Something clicked. That day she built one castle, then another. And soon Alexandra, who professed to hate dolls when she came to us, started playing dolls with Isabel, as well. The Barbies joined the tiger in amazing adventures. As the weeks and months of our first summer together passed, Isabel would start making up a story, and Alexandra would throw herself right in. It was as if all the stories 10-year-old Alexandra had never had read to her, had never read for herself, were finally coming out in fantastic epics of magic and mystery.

One Sunday morning, at the end of that first summer, Kathryn awoke to a silent house. She found Tom in the kitchen with a cup of coffee and the newspaper. "Everybody else still asleep?" she asked.

"Everybody but Alexandra," he said. "Check out the living room."

Mystified, Kathryn peered through the doorway, then found herself blinking back tears—for there was Alexandra, on her knees before a massive block castle filled with dolls and little animals. She had built it all by herself, and was making the inhabitants talk in different voices. She was creating the adventure; she was telling the story. Far from just "getting busy," Alexandra had learned how to play.

Angie, two years older, simply proved immune to this kind of fantasy play. We still feel the poignancy of her loss. She came to us overly responsible, having missed the imagination-filled childhood we would have wished for her. But she did take to reading! What had been a skill deemed useful only for schoolwork soon became her passion. "Just one more chapter?" she would plead when we called for lights out. She became a full-fledged bookworm, discovering worlds of intrigue and romance in novels.

One memorable afternoon we came looking for Angie to take her turn cleaning the kitchen, and found her curled up on the porch swing with a book, blissfully content. We didn\'t have the heart to interrupt her.

A household hobby
Another day, when Angie hovered, at loose ends, Kathryn said, "Here—sit down at the table and draw a picture while I prepare dinner."

"I can't draw," Angie claimed. "I'm terrible at art."

"Try anyway," Kathryn encouraged, and hastily arranged the items closest at hand in the center of the table: a vase of flowers, a zucchini. She handed Angie a piece of paper. "Just do your best. Draw what you see."

Full of doubts, Angie settled down to sketch. Isabel and Alexandra wandered in and joined her. They put on music, sharpened colored pencils, then added watercolors and markers to the supplies on the table. Soon we had three drawings hanging on the wall. The girls called Nicholas and Daniel in, then we parents drew our versions. Now there were seven still lifes. Friends who came over exclaimed over them, and some even added to our gallery.

The next week Kathryn arranged another still life. After a few weeks, each child was in charge of setting up a display for the family drawing.

We treasure the collection of all the paintings and drawings we have from our first summer together—a gallery of "getting busy."

In addition to encouraging quiet pastimes, we urged the girls to ride bikes and explore their new town. We signed them up for tap and jazz classes, karate, drama, swimming, and piano—whatever they wanted to try. We worried about piling on too much, but wanted them to explore their interests, as our birth children have always done. Our new daughters had a blast, and they made friends fast.

Finally, familiarity
"Settling in" is the gradual process of learning a new rhythm of family life. We knew it had happened when each of our children could become immersed in something, sometimes alone, sometimes with others.

By summer's end Angie and Alexandra were reveling in new-found talents and passions. Soon we would begin another semester of teaching, and the children would all head back to school—new schools for Angie and Alexandra. The tizzy of the girls' arrival—the travel and parties and special activities—was over. Now our future stretched before us, beautiful in its ordinariness.

Kathryn Reiss is an award-winning author of suspense novels for children and teens. Tom Strychacz writes books and articles on American literature. They both teach at Mills College in northern California, and are the parents of five incredible kids.

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