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Adoption Blog: Melting Pot Family
Adoption Book Review and Giveaway: Melissa Fay Greene’s “No Biking in the House Without a Helmet”
Melissa Fay Greene’s books surprise me. When I read There Is No Me Without You, I expected an Ethiopian adoption story. Instead, I learned about the history and political climate of the birth country of my daughter, Leyla, as well as what it truly means to be giving. When I read her latest book, out this month, No Biking in the House Without a Helmet, I expected a story about adoption but with themes focused on a larger family with older children, as Greene herself has nine children, four biological and five adopted from two continents who joined the family either as elementary-age children or as teenagers. Again, I was mistaken.
Yes, she touches upon many adoption-centered themes, ones that large families, international families, transracial families, and families who have adopted older children will relate to. She addresses the idea that children can have two mothers, that siblings can be the same age but not be twins, what life is like for orphans raised in institutions, and the past life and culture older children bring to adoptive families—such as the idea that a child can start life as a goat herder, become a star soccer player, and have an older brother who is still a goat herder (a true story for one of her sons). But there was something more.
Courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux
As I pondered my reaction to this book, I was first struck with the ways that Greene and I are similar. She was 42 when she first adopted internationally, as was I. She's a mom to bio and adopted children, as am I. She is a fellow working mother and someone who also expresses herself through her writing. She is not a natural athlete, is quite introspective, and has insecurities and fears—all of which are quite familiar to me.
And I then was struck by the differences. I have three children; she has nine. I am Christian; she is Jewish. Her roots extend to Israel, mine to the Netherlands. Her husband is a criminal defense lawyer, mine is a Greek ex-pro basketball player turned coach and math teacher. Sports came to her house through her kids and were amplified through adoption, whereas they've always played a central role in our family. She is a professional writer; I am a lawyer.
And then it hit me: I connected with Greene and her book because she told her family stories in a completely relatable way. It doesn’t matter where you are from, what you do for a living, how many children you have, or what your religious faith is: Family is elemental.
I was also drawn in by Greene’s honest, mom-centric perspective. She is the narrator and we look at her family’s adventures through her lens. Greene does not sugarcoat: Although she is the glue keeping her home together, she is at times overwhelmed and unsure of her choices for her family. In describing how her family was affected after she brought her son home from Bulgaria—he struggled to adapt to life outside an institution as she simultaneously coped with post-adoption depression—Greene shares how she wondered if she had ruined her family.
In another part of the book, Greene writes about how she needed to help her children adopted from Ethiopia deal with their history of loss—being the sole caregiver for a dying parent and living with deprivation of basic needs like adequate food. She also shares how these stories didn't come easily, especially from children who couldn't always clearly communicate their needs—for not just emotional reasons but also because of language-learning challenges and cultural barriers. In some instances, her children would deal with this inability to communicate their feelings by acting out in problematic ways through fighting, tantrums, or by giving the silent treatment.
Each parenting challenge (adoption-related or not) is nestled in her family’s context and is shared not as something to fear but rather as something to understand and appreciate. Hearing this raw honesty from a mother of nine and a successful author is affirming for me as I wrestle with my own insecurities as a parent—it's comforting to know that not only am I not alone, I am in good company.
There's room for laughter, too. With No Biking in the House Without a Helmet, Greene takes full advantage of the fact that families provide unique opportunities to highlight the humorous and absurd. Her large one provides ample fodder. Is it OK to arrive late to a friend’s wedding because your daughter is begging you to save baby hamsters? How do you counter four determined teenage boys who want to learn about “sax”? (Hint: They couldn’t spell the word correctly because they were just learning to read in English.) Even with the book's title—drawn from something she told a son after he brought a bike into the house without thinking whether that advice made sense—Greene uses humor as a sword and a shield to survive the challenges of raising a family and to laugh at herself in the process.
In reading Greene’s There Is No We Without You and No Biking in the House, I was profoundly moved. Neither one did I speed through. They are not page-turners in that respect. I wanted to linger over each chapter. I wanted to examine everything she learned and shared, her sense of humor, and her openness in the context of my life. Greene is not one to indulge in the superficial (in fact, she consults her daughters for fashion advice before attending any formal event) or offer quick fixes. Instead, the stories she shares are about the power of family to heal, to stretch you beyond your perceived limits, and to open your heart.
She is careful not to present answers—as her message is about the need for families to find our own answers—but rather her perspective and personal insight. But in sharing her doubts, her fears, her failures, her joys, and her journey, she allows us the benefit of walking down the path with her and coming away armed with information and understanding.
Her family is both completely normal in their bonds and the experiences they share as well as completely unique, as is each family. A section at the end summed it up for me: She describes how members of her family are both similar to and different from one another in a variety of both serious and funny ways—some related to adoption and many not. For example, “shiny hair that blows in the wind” could describe two of her daughters (one bio and one adopted from Ethiopia), while “Brillo-like hair remains unmoved by wind, water, hail, or ice” could describe four of her sons (one bio and three adopted from Ethiopia). “By joining this family through birth or adoption, family life was re-gained or enlarged, enlivened, and enriched" describes all 11 members of the family.
I find such truth for my family in that statement, and I'm guessing many of you will feel the same. This book is definitely worth a slow, careful read—you won’t want to miss anything.
Interested in reading No Biking in the House Without a Helmet? Post a comment below sharing an anecdote about your family. We'll randomly select one respondent to receive a copy of the book. You can read an excerpt here.
Rules: No purchase necessary. Void where prohibited. Subject to all laws. All entrants must register a valid e-mail address with AdoptiveFamiliesCircle (see Terms and Conditions). Giveaway begins at 5 p.m. EDT on May 4, 2011, and ends at midnight EDT on May 31, 2011. Limit one (1) entry per person. Approximate value of the prize, one copy of No Biking in the House Without a Helmet, is $26. Odds of winning are based on the number of eligible entries received. Sweepstakes sponsor: New Hope Media, LLC, 39 W. 37th St., 15th Floor, New York, NY, 10018.
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