Saturday, February 5, 2011

Semira: What You Don't See

Semira turned six years old this week and we are inching closer to our three-year anniversary being a family of four. I just received my notice from our adoption agency that our annual post-placement report is due soon. Since I am writing about our last year together anyway, I thought I would write a bit about what it’s like being a mom to a child who first met you when she was three years old (and change). People usually see a happy, go-lucky little girl who has adjusted to her new life rather well. Much of the time, Semira is this way. But there is also another side to being her mother that I want people to know. People sometimes comment about all the wonderful opportunities that Semira has now. In a sense this is true, but these opportunities come at a price. On some level though, it implies that what she has now is somehow better than what she had before. I am not sure this is always true! I have also noticed that people assume she doesn’t remember her past because she was only three at the time we adopted her. I can assure you this is not the case.

Steve and I spent a fair amount of time reading about parenting an adopted child and about international adoption in general prior to adopting Semira. We considered ourselves fairly prepared or at least knowledgeable. What I have come to realize is that dealing with issues in the abstract is very clinical. Living them every day is very emotional. It is only recently that I can see the forest through the trees. The first six months home were simply a whirlwind. I experienced every kind of emotion imaginable from extreme panic to absolute excitement. We were all getting to know each other. Semira had to become comfortable with her new surroundings and learn a new language. Each day was different from the next. You never knew what to expect. It was truly an adjustment and attachment period - one that is, in fact, still ongoing.

First meeting Semira in 2008

Lily was a great big sister from the start!

Once Semira started to gain trust in us and could communicate, we began to experience her grief. Behind her smiling face is a little girl who grieves for a culture and country lost, and most importantly for her mother in Ethiopia. Grief and fear go hand in hand. She is afraid because her memories of Ethiopia have become less clear over time. She makes comments about no longer speaking Amharic. She wants to go back to Ethiopia, but is scared because it will be different and no one will understand her (kind of like being a stranger in your own house). Plus, she loves us and fears that we may not be permanent. Telling a child who has already lost a family that we will always be there falls on deaf ears. She wants to believe it, but sometimes can't. This has been extremely emotional for our family at times. It is so hard to watch your child suffer and to realize there is little assurance you can give her. As a mother, it is also difficult to hear that she wants her other mother. In all honesty, it has been a dagger in the heart at times. The most difficult part is to put your own feelings and ego aside to deal with Semira's feelings. I have definitely gotten better at handling these situations. There are no short cuts; it takes time and produces a lot of tears. But it is ok, I am at peace with the fact that I am not the only maternal figure in her life.

Now that Semira is older and in school, I am beginning to see new issues about acceptance and self-perception. For the first two years, Semira rarely commented about her looks, in particular that she was different than us. There were plenty of statements of fact about skin and hair color, but nothing more than that. But over the last year, the comments have been more like desires to be different than she is. This makes me so incredibly sad. I tell her over and over that she is beautiful and perfect that way she is. While I have always considered myself to be very open-minded about race issues, I have to say that this experience is opening my eyes to the many subtleties about race that I was simply not capable of realizing as a white person. It has become obvious that there are things not said, but rather implied to Semira in her day-to-day interactions that have caused her to formulate such thoughts. I remember my first professional job out of graduate school where I was working on a grant to decrease alcohol abuse in certain Charlotte, NC neighborhoods. I had a real ah-ha moment when I realized that I was the only white person in the room at most meetings and events. All of the sudden, things felt kind of strange. Well, this is probably pretty close to Semira’s view moving from Ethiopia to the United States. I don’t pretend to have this race issue figured out at all. My goal is to raise Semira so that she has a positive identity of herself and her situation. Pretending that race doesn’t matter or that love is color blind is stupid. I am hopeful that the endless hours of conversation about skin color in our house will yield something positive. But beyond talking, we have other ideas such as living in Ethiopia for a year during Steve’s upcoming sabbatical. I can’t help but think this experience will be transformational for us all.

Like I said, there is more to being Semira’s mother than what people see every day. There are extra layers of complexity that we deal with. Even so, I have no regrets about parenting in general or adoption. Our family is on this journey together. When I look ahead, I see good things and I am hopeful. I see our family growing in new ways because of Semira. She is a beautiful little girl inside and out.

This fall in our front yard (above).

Semira celebrating her 6th birthday (below).


  1. Erika, this brought tears to my eyes. What a great post! And just so you know...Kendall is always telling me how beautiful she thinks Semira's (and Destiny's)hair and skin are. I am so thankful that she has a little bit of diversity in her class. We have had several conversations about Semira being from Ethiopia and what that means...especially since I've been to Africa in recent years, and we know at least 3 families who have children from Ethiopia, these have been good starting points to talk about things with both Julia and Kendall about race, family, adoption, etc. I'm thankful to know you guys, and really appreciate your sharing some of the more emotional, challenging parts of your adoption story.

  2. Beautiful story and a very beautiful little girl Erika. As parents of young children, we have so many challenges. So many questions we are not sure to how to answer, so many decisions we need to make for the welfare of our children. Being an adoptee myself, I am very thankful for the life my parents have provided for me. I did not appreciate it as much until I became much older and a mother myself. I commend you and your family, for reaching out, adopting a child, providing her a fantastic life, and for sharing your story with us all.

  3. Thanks for speaking (writing!) truth, Erika. I'm often struck by how often we ignore losses of all sorts in our day-to-day lives. Some losses are more obvious: divorce, illness, aging, death. But a myriad of small losses work their way into our lives, too: unsettling fluxes at work, parenting lessons, splintered friendships, lost opportunities. I think there are even bioregional losses we can experience when we resettle somewhere new.

    Each of these losses, big and small, carries some amount of grief. It would be wonderful, I think, if we could learn to gently hold hands with grief, reassure it that we see and feel it, until it's ready to let go and drift away. Your post beautifully acknowledges that you do this for Semira's grief and confusion, and your own. Thank you for this example, and for the reminder that how we hold the grief--gently and as openly as we choose--matters.