My Two Girls

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It's peanut butter and porridge for breakfast - Myrlande eats the porridge while Amber eats the peanut butter, each exclaiming how bad the other's meal smells.

Myrlande joined Amber and me 4 months ago and I find myself constantly comparing my two girls. Help, I think. This can't be healthy. I've read warnings against comparing siblings. But I do it all the time.

Both are attractive, lively children. Amber has white skin, brown hair, hazel eyes, and a solid build. Nine years old, she tries to dress like a teenager and longs to go to dances with a boyfriend, but can unpredictably display toddler behavior like running, shouting and touching everything in a grocery store. Myrlande has brown skin and eyes, black hair, is tall for her 6 years, but thin -- I can easily pick her up. She lets me choose her clothes, and she lives in the present, anxiously curious about the world. "What will happen if the train comes apart?" she asks on her first train ride.

Myrlande loves to be held, coming for hugs and snuggles often. Amber is like a cat, allowing touch only at her convenience. She'll ask to have her back tickled only to say, "You can stop now."

Even before motherhood, I knew a lot about raising children. I had taught young children with a wide range of abilities and behaviors. I had enjoyed my interactions with children, sometimes borrowing friends' children for holidays. I had read instructive books like Parenting for Peace and Justice, and Drawing With Children. So I was surprised and confused when Amber joined me and acted like a new breed of four-year-old. Her initial regressions -- she wanted a bottle, asked to be burped, crawled and talked baby talk -- worried me until her social worker explained that this was her way of becoming my baby. Other behaviors worried me longer. She was physically aggressive, kicking, scratching, and biting to express anger. She was fearful, trailing me like a shadow. She was supersensitive to smells. And more. I eventually found a psychiatrist who explained and gave ideas for handling these troublesome behaviors. So although they persist in varying degrees, I worry less.

There was also behavior I couldn't tolerate. When the two-week honeymoon was over, Amber criticized me and changed her mind constantly. "Would you like a banana?" I'd ask. "Yes, please," Amber would answer sweetly. But as soon as it was peeled, she'd knock it onto the floor. I'd put on her water wings at the pool and she'd demand that I adjust them seventeen times. To save this adoption, I developed strict rules about when it was too late to change her mind, and learned to ignore her demands with "I've done the best I can" -- a phrase that now gets used on me.

In contrast to the struggles I had with Amber, Myrlande is adjusting easily. Some of the ease is due to my own adjustments -- I now have strategies for dealing with the defiance that is marking the end of the honeymoon. But Myrlande's regression is minor -- wanting me to dress or feed her at times -- and she has annoying rather than worrisome behaviours. She expresses anger by screaming, stamping her feet and slamming doors.

As a new mother, I was disappointed when Amber didn't like to do the things I planned. Instead of coloring, she ate the crayons. Lego blocks were dismissed as boy-toys even though they were pink. It was a long time before she'd listen to storybooks and she ignored puzzles or simple games. I had to search for alternatives.

Amber did like my dress-up box and responded well to music. She wanted to be a ballerina, so she took ballet lessons. She has continued through rhythmic gymnastics, tap and jazz dancing, especially loving the recitals when she gets to be on stage dressed in pretty clothes. For this reason, drama classes are also successful.

Swimming lessons worked, too, and Amber could swim like a mermaid when she was 4. But we still had the problem of what to do with time at home. She usually wanted to play with the Barbies I thought were inappropriate toys. I relaxed when I realized that she used her Barbies much like puppets and talked through a lot of issues with them.

Myrlande, though, is eager to read, play games, build, cook, and explore and more. It's so heartening and fun. And surprisingly, Amber, who joins us because she doesn't want to be left out, finds them enjoyable too.

Amber left a foster family of seven to become the only child of a single mother so she was very lonely. Although she desperately wanted friends, time with other children would quickly deteriorate and need adult intervention to prevent harm. It took a lot of advocacy but she has made some good friends over the years.

At school, especially on the playground, Amber's social difficulties continue. For the most part, she has been able to curb her physical aggression but is unable to stop other annoying behavior. Until this year, when she joined a special class, she hated school. To send her daily, resisting and miserable, into what she perceived as a hostile environment, has been the hardest part of parenting for me.

In contrast, it's a joy to hear Myrlande talk of her friends and experiences in school. She does better at interacting with her peers - can read social clues - and is making friends easily. No learning disabilities have shown up yet.

Amber may have trouble relating to others but she knows her own emotions and this is her biggest asset. She can clearly express how she is feeling and why. The psychiatrist says she is exceptional in this regard -- many adults cannot do this. Myrlande expresses anger very well but she hides her grief, disappointments, fears and pain with it. When I try to talk about her feelings, she changes the subject.

There are many other differences between the girls. Amber sits glued to the TV if it's on while Myrlande uses it as a background for other activities. It's fun to take Amber to a movie or a play because of her total absorption with what's going on. Myrlande squirms and asks, "Is it time to go yet?" Amber is a very orderly child. She likes to arrange her things and keeps her room tidy. If I tell Myrlande to put something in her room, she opens the door, flings it in, and leaves it where it falls.

So there they are. My difficult child and my easy child. I can sit back and enjoy Myrlande. Yet there is great satisfaction in helping Amber progress. And there is joy and love in relating to them both.

Note: This story was read to both Amber and Myrlande and they give permission for this information to be printed.

Credits: Martha Greenhow

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