Friday, January 21, 2011

Alive and well. . . .mostly ;-)

Once again, I am sorry for leaving everyone hanging. After the jet lag, doctors appointments, visits with the social worker, homeschooling and finding our new normal, I find I have very little coherent thought left to offer when I finally have a chance to sit down at my computer in the evenings. While I am sad to say that my mental state at the end of the day hasn't really improved much, I have decided that I can no longer ignore your pleas for an update and so I simply ask for your forgiveness for the nonsensical post that is about to occur. . . .

I can still remember the very moment that I knew that we would adopt an "older child." Richard and I were on the first leg of our journey home after our first trip to Ukraine in 2007. There were several other adoptive families on our flight and all of them had adopted children between the ages of 5-13. I can still vividly remember the excitement, nervousness, relief and trepidation on their faces as they each began a new, scary, but wonderful, chapter in their lives. One little girl in particular caught my eye. She was 7 years old and joy absolutely radiated from every inch of her little body. As she bounced up and down in her seat while looking out her window, I watched her steal many happy glances at her new mommy and daddy and then place her tiny hand in her mother's and nestled into her side. That is the moment that I knew that, some day, we would adopt an "older child" too.

Fast forward three years. . . Alexis and I are sitting on the first leg of our journey home from Bulgaria. She is so happy to finally be going home that she cannot contain her joy and I cannot help but smile at her energy and enthusiasm, despite the fact that it is 5:30 am. As we take off she sits next to me, bouncing up and down in her seat, looking out her window, watching the sights and sounds of Sofia (and life as she has known it) fade into the distance. Every few seconds she steals excited glances my way and asks me when we will be in America. Then she puts her hand in mine and nestles into my side, so happy to finally begin the next chapter in her life.

Our journey home took 26 hours. All flights were on time and, despite the fact that Alexis didn't sleep a wink until our last flight (and consequently, neither did I), she was an amazing traveler and we had a great time! Unfortunately, when I checked in for our flight I was told that my carryon was over the weight limit and that I would have to unload some things into my checked luggage. As much as it pained me, my camera was one of the first things I had to unload (too many other travel essentials in the bag) and so I wasn't able to capture just how excited my little Bulgarian princess was. I was more than a little annoyed when we boarded that plane and I saw dozens of bags, much larger and heavier than mine, being carried on. If I hadn't been so tired, I might have remembered to pull it out of my bag before rechecking it in Philadelphia after going through immigration, but I am sad to say that I didn't. I'm still kicking myself for that one because the reunion of Alexis and her daddy at the Dayton airport was absolutely priceless. As soon as Richard stepped into sight Alexis yelled "Daddy!" and took off running towards him and he scooped her up into a huge bear hug. Boy was she excited to see her daddy (and I think the feeling was mutual)!

By the time we got home it was almost midnight and all of the kids were sound asleep in their beds. We debated letting them sleep, but decided that it would be better to wake them and introduce them to their newest sister. Alexis was especially insistent that she see Lily. Although Lily was a bit disoriented from being woken up, she recognized Alexis immediately and the girls gave each other a great big hug. By the time we went to tuck Alexis into bed, Lily was wide awake and her excitement was apparent.

By 1am, Richard and I finally turned in. . . .and by 5:30 am, everyone was wide awake and ready to get on with life as a family of 10 :-)

For the most part, the adjustment is going very well. I do find it interesting that, while this adjustment has been MUCH easier for Alexis than it was for Lily and Alayna, it has been a more difficult adjustment period for ME. I am sure that the fact that we have had to find a "new normal" twice in five months doesn't help. Or the fact that we had been out of our normal routine for several weeks (Christmas break) prior to Alexis' arrival. Or it could be largely due to the fact that January is always a crazy month for our family and January 2011 has been no exception (5 birthdays (Joshua, Richard, Maren, Lukas and Jacob), homestudy update, doctors appointments, post placement reports, school, and a major surgery in Philadelphia (Alayna-next Thursday. .I'll save the details for another post). Then again, sometimes it is simply due to the fact that I often fail to remember that 8 kids between the ages of 4-8 (6 with various special needs) is hard work and I need to cut myself some slack ;-)

Alexis is adjusting beautifully. She was obviously well prepared (the orphanage in Stara Zagora is blessed to have an amazing psychologist working with the kids) for the HUGE changes that would be taking place in her life and she has responded amazingly to having her life turned upside down and inside out! Of course, there are many deeply ingrained habits and behaviors that will likely be a "work in progress" for quite some time, but as I have mentioned before, Alexis responds very well to redirection and discipline and she is learning quickly. There is a BIG personality in that tiny body and she often rubs her siblings the wrong way (have I mentioned that she is bossy (regardless of whether or not you can understand her) and that her favorite method of negotiation is the "hit and run"), but again, she is quickly learning that is not the way we operate here and, consequently, relationships are improving :-)

Lily and Alayna have had the hardest time adjusting to their new sibling. Not necessarily because of personality clashes (they actually all get along quite well), but because Alexis' presence and hearing her speaking Bulgarian (and calling Lily by her birth name) reminds them of how life used to be. We have seen a little regression and recurrence of some previously abolished behaviors in both the girls, but we are working through those things and have made it a priority to address any insecurities or fears that this change may have brought to the girls. As we had anticipated, there is some jealousy and competitiveness between Alexis and Lily (and it goes both ways), but fortunately, it is not nearly as intense as I imagined it might be and most of the time, rather than cause frustration, it makes me laugh (which makes Alexis laugh and because, Alexis and I are laughing, Lily joins in as well. . . .have I mentioned that Alexis is also very easily "diffused"? A quality I hope she passes on to several of her other siblings!).

Honestly, other than the normal stresses and difficulties of the "adjustment period," things are going beautifully and we feel SO blessed that Alexis is part of our family! As we begin to settle in as a family of 10, we will also be switching gears once again as we prepare to add children 9 and 10 to the family. So, stay tuned because, as I am sure you have all come to expect, more adventures with the Rieben family await :-)

Our fabulous friend, Keely (who took care of our kids during the day while I was in Bulgaria for my first AND last trips) was kind enough to take most of these pictures for us. All of the amazing hats in the pictures were lovingly handmade by Keely for EVERY member of our family! Once she gets her Etsy store up and running, I'll share all the details with you! Her creations are worth every penny!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

She's NUTS!

Yep, it's official! This girl is certifiably NUTS! Which means that she is going to fit right in with the rest of the family!

Last night, as we were leaving the hotel restaurant after dinner, Alexis asked the waiter "Who made the food?" He told her that the chef had made the food and asked Alexis if she would like to meet her. Alexis said yes, of course, and we went back to the kitchen to meet the chef.

We went back down to the restaurant for dinner tonight and, as we finished our meal, Alexis asked the waiter (a different one tonight) if she could speak with the chef. The waiter agreed and we went back to the kitchen to say hello and Alexis told the chef that she had enjoyed her salad and shared the events of the day with her. She obviously made an impression because, shortly after we had returned to our table, the waiter emerged from the kitchen with complimentary cake for each of us from the chef (and it was YUMMY)!

We made three more visits to the kitchen before we headed back up to our room this evening :-) And Alexis learned about ice, tried some cooked squash (also complimentary. . and she gobbled it up) and insisted that she "call" her daddy on the kitchen phone!

As we were preparing to leave, two German gentlemen (whom she had introduced herself to last night at dinner) came down to have dinner and Alexis hurried over to tell them about her day and that she had gotten to eat cake (they speak German and English, but no Bulgarian so I translate for everyone!). She then proceeded to do "Cheers" with them. . .over and over and over again!

Throughout the evening Alexis would call to the waiter and demand things of him (have I mentioned that she is BOSSY!?) such as, "I want to listen to music," "I need to speak with the chef," "Bring me some fries," etc. He was such a good sport (though I actually suspect that she had him wrapped completely around her finger ) and I made sure to tip him well!

This girl has SO much life and personality. She keeps me constantly entertained! I marvel at how well she is adjusting to the major changes in her life and how smoothly she is already adjusting. Having adopted four children prior to Alexis, I firmly believe, at this point, that this is the "calm before the storm" with her, but I think that her transition into her new life will go very smoothly in comparison to some of our other children.

Having observed her in her orphanage with the other children there on several ocassions (and also many children this week), I have come to the conclusion that she was likely the "top dog" in the group of children she lived with. She is used to being able to tell people what to do, to acquire the toys that she is interested in when she is interested in them, etc. without the objection of others. That is going to change when she gets home and I think this is where she will struggle the most. We have MANY strong personalities in our family and I can already tell you that they will NOT tolerate being bossed around, having toys taken from them, etc.

I am especially grateful that we have had the opportunity to spend time with other children this week and I have had a chance to observe her interactions with them because it has definitely given me a chance to prepare for the challenges that lie ahead.

Lily has had many of these same struggles (as I mentioned before, many children from orphanages have no concept of personal property since everything at the orphanage is usually community property and the children have no personal possessions), but she has made HUGE strides in this area and I know that Alexis will too.

Although Alexis can be bossy and has a difficult time with sharing and understanding personal property, she is a very compassionate little girl. She may struggle with sharing toys, but she ALWAYS shares her food. In fact, she will usually offer what she has to others first, before she eats anything herself. She is also very concerned when others are upset and is quick to respond with hugs/kisses and words of affirmation.

She still pushes her boundaries often, but she is quickly learning that mommy is in charge and that it is important to listen to what mommy says. Although I don't worry as much about attachment issues with her, I came to the conclusion today (after observing her with Toni's brother, Marty) that we will still need to limit interactions with other adults until she is firmly attached to mommy and daddy. While we were at the Embassy for her visa interview today, Marty was playing with her (he is SO great with the kids) and after awhile she started hugging and kissing him, asking him to hold her and to sit on his lap and, eventually, even calling him daddy. Marty, of course, corrected her and told her it was time to go and sit with mommy, but it definitely reinforced to me the importance of Richard and I being the primary caregivers and the primary adult interaction that she has until she is firmly attached and understands that WE are her mommy and daddy (a concept which is still foreign). We will get there, but we will have to be vigilant in order to help her to learn to form healthy attachments.

I feel SO blessed to have Alexis in our family. She is a shining star and she keeps me smiling (and on my toes!). She is such a "perfect fit" and it just reminds me that, each and every one of the children in our family has been hand-picked by our Heavenly Father to be part of this family!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Good friends, great fun!

Alexis and I were up bright and early this morning (though not as early as yesterday thank goodness) so we could prepare for a fun-filled day with friends. Our friend, Fiona (whose husband works for the Embassy), invited us to spend the day with her family, which included a play date at her friend Cindy's home.

We took a taxi to Cindy's home and spent the morning making crafts, playing with friends, and enjoying a wonderful lunch that Cindy had prepared. I had a great time getting to know Cindy and Fiona and Alexis (though a little shy at first) enjoyed playing with all of the kids.

Alexis LOVES to take pictures. Here she is with Fiona's camera. I am sure there are some interesting pictures to be found there!

With rooms full of toys, the kids decided to move into the bathroom where the shower was quickly transformed into a space ship. Here is Bran, Alexis, Nuala and William ready to blast off!

Alexis in the "space ship"

After lunch Alexis and I went with Fiona back to their home in Dragalevtsi (which is literally at the foot of Mt. Vitosha) where we enjoyed more great food and fun with friends. I have been stalking Fiona's blog since shortly after returning home with the girls this summer, and living vicariously through her and her family as they travel the world, and it was such a privilege to spend the day getting to know Fiona and her amazing kids (who I absolutely ADORE), Bran and Nuala (4 year-old twins) and Maeve (11 months). I am SO glad we had this opportunity to spend time with them! We had such a great time that I was sad to leave at the end of the day!

Bran, Alexis and Nuala on the boat swing! So much fun!

LOVE this picture of Alexis and Bran! Fiona, how do you feel about arranged marriages!? I absolutely adore this boy. . . even if he does think I'm a "bad guy" ;-)

Alexis and Nuala playing with Play-doh. Nuala is such a sweetheart and was so nice to Alexis all day, even when that kindness was not reciprocated.

The past few days have been filled with new people, places and things for Alexis but she has done surprisingly well adjusting to all of the changes in her life. Like Alayna, she is somewhat of an "orphanage prodigy" in the sense that she does not display many of the orphanage behaviors commonly seen in adopted children. The only self-soothing behavior I have seen is thumb sucking at night (she does not rock herself AT ALL), she is appropriately shy around new people and in new places, preferring to be right by my side until she feels comfortable in her environment (and even then, not straying far from me). Though she does want to eat CONSTANTLY, she generally eats small amounts and is content to save the rest for later. The most prominent "orphanage behavior" I have observed is her lack of the concept of personal property. If she wants something, she takes it, because, at the orphanage, all toys, clothes, etc. were community property. The children did not have any personal belongings and so the idea that a toy actually belongs to someone is completely foreign to her. We have had this same issue with Lily, but she is learning quickly, and I am sure that Alexis will too. Let's put it this way, with 8 kids, it is hard not to learn about personal property and the importance of sharing!

While Alexis does not display many of the common orphanage behaviors, she IS starting to push her boundaries with me and has had to learn the hard way on several occasions today, that it is important to listen to mama (the language barrier is not an issue most of the time because I speak enough Bulgarian to understand her and for her to understand me). She responds to discipline well however and I think that it has actually worked to strengthen our bonds of attachment (and, although it is still early, at this point I am not concerned about attachment issues with Alexis. . .she is VERY much attached to mama at this point and, although daddy is not here right now, she misses him fiercely and talks about and looks at his pictures constantly).

While we were waiting for our food at the hotel restaurant this evening, Alexis decided to get up and dance to the music that was playing to pass this time. I'll be sure to post the video tomorrow!

Alexis is truly a gift. She is such a vibrant, fun and happy girl. I have had such a great time with her this week and am grateful for the opportunity that I have had to spend this one-on-one time with her.

My tiny Bulgarian firecracker

Tomorrow morning is Alexis' medical appointment and her visa interview at the Embassy. As long as everything goes according to plan, we should have her passport and visa by Friday and will be on the first flight out of Sofia on Saturday morning. While we have greatly enjoyed our time here, both of us are excited to get home to our family!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

An evening with friends

Alexis and I spent the morning relaxing at the hotel (translation- Alexis spent the morning taking bath after bath after bath!). By noon, the hotel room was starting to feel a bit small, so we bundled up again and set out for a walk around wet, cold, snowy Sofia (translation- WE only walked for about 5 minutes before her little legs got tired and I carried her around Sofia). We walked around the open market and then stopped at McDonald's for lunch. She loved taking in the sights and sounds of the city and looking into all of the shop windows!

We stopped by the grocery store on the way back to the hotel and picked up some pretzels and yogurt and replenished our supply of fresh fruit. Shortly after returning to the hotel, the housekeeper knocked on the door and asked if she could clean our room. It desperately needed cleaning and so I thanked her and told her that we could go downstairs while she worked. Alexis had other ideas! She wanted to help and so she helped the housekeeper replenish our supply of towels, vacuum the floor and make the beds. Her favorite part was getting to spray the air freshener when she was done!


Although she was exhausted, she insisted that she wasn't tired and that she didn't want to sleep. Instead we called home and then she rested quietly on the bed and looked through her photo album, which is never far from her!

Alexis showing me her prized photo album (with pictures of our home and family. . she can't wait to add pictures of herself!)

This evening we enjoyed a special treat! While I was in Philadelphia at the beginning of December, I ran in to a friend from our AMC (arthrogryposis) family. Her husband is Bulgarian and I learned that they would be in Sofia, visiting family for the holidays, during our stay! She graciously invited us to get together with their family while we were in Sofia and tonight we had the opportunity to spend an evening in their home, enjoying a delicious traditional, Bulgarian meal, great friends and wonderful conversation.

Alexis especially enjoyed the opportunity to play with their two girls (and all of their fun toys) and left with a new best friend in Baba Trachliev, who, as all good grandmothers do, spoiled her rotten and gave her a "goody bag" to take home with her!

We had a wonderful time and are so grateful to the Trachlievs for inviting us to spend the evening with them!

Needless to say, bedtime was a breeze tonight and Alexis was out cold within minutes of her head hitting the pillow. Hopefully our sleep will be uninterrupted tonight as we have another fun day with friends planned tomorrow!

*My apologies for the lack of pictures! I walked out of our hotel room without my camera this evening and didn't get any pictures of our time with the Trachlievs :-( Still kicking myself for that one!

Operation "Spring Alexis from the Orphanage" is complete

We hit the road for Stara Zagora yesterday at 6:30am. I'm not sure what time we arrived at the orphanage, but it was obviously late enough in the morning that Alexis was starting to worry that we might not make it :-) We were greeted at the door by one of the caregivers who animatedly explained to us how excited Alexis had been all morning that Mama was coming and that she was going to fly on an airplane.

We walked down the hall and the caregiver called to Alexis and told her that Mama was here. Almost immediately, my little Bulgarian firecracker rounded the corner, running as fast as her little legs could carry her, arms outstretched, yelling "Mamo! Mamo!" When we reached each other she jumped right into my arms and gave me the biggest hug and kiss I think I've ever received. What a reception! And yes, tears were shed!

While Alexis was changing her clothes, I shared pictures of Lily with the caretakers. It was the first time I had ever had the opportunity to return to one of my children's orphanages once they were home and it was wonderful to be able to share pictures and give an update on how well she is doing.

Once Alexis was ready to go we said our final goodbyes and climbed into the car. She did wonderfully on the drive back to Sofia. Once in Sofia we made a quick stop into the passport office to apply for her passport and then made our way back to the hotel.

Our first item of business was to call home. Alexis wanted two things. . .to know where her daddy was and to talk to Lily! The look on her face when she saw Lily staring back at her from the computer screen was priceless. She cannot wait to get home to see her sister and has spent a good part of the past two days talking about Lily. She is also VERY excited to see her daddy and asks me often where he is, what he is doing and when we will see him.

When we had completed our call home, we bundled up and braved the cold and snow to walk to the grocery store. Ever heard the phrase, "Like a kid in a candy store"? That was Alexis, quite literally, as we walked through the grocery store!

Alexis proudly displaying her bag of candy!

With our errands complete, we went back to the hotel where Alexis took her first bath, complete with bubble. She was in heaven. When she was done, we went downstairs and ordered a BIG pizza (at her request). We will be working on that pizza for the rest of the week :-) After dinner, Alexis asked to take another bath and, of course, I obliged. And as I watched her splashing around, laughing and playing in the water, I chuckled to myself thinking about how the water bill for the hotel must rise when post institutionalized children are in house!

Alexis and the BIG pizza! Seriously, this thing is as big as she is!

By 8:00, I FINALLY convinced her that it was time for bed. Both of us were exhausted, but Alexis wasn't quite ready to close her eyes and rest her head. It took about an hour and a half, but she finally conceded to sleep around 9:3o and, needless to say, so did I. I woke around 4 am to find myself teetering on the edge of the bed with a sweet little Bulgarian laying across the bed, her head resting against my back. To prevent myself from falling out of bed, I decided to move her back to the other side. . . .a decision I quickly regretted! Initially I thought that I had moved her successfully without waking her, but just as I was about to drift back to sleep, I heard a very wide-awake voice say, "Mamo?" And so began the 2 hour battle to get her back to sleep. Fortunately, she finally gave in to sleep again around 6 am and both of us were able to get a bit more rest.

Splish, splash she LOVED taking a bath!

Overall, it was a wonderful first day! She is adjusting well and so happy to finally be going home. I am grateful for this time that I have to spend with her one-on-one and I am excited to get her home and watch her blossom and grow in our family!

My Bulgarian bed hog :-)

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Did I forget to mention. . . .

. . . that I would be in Bulgaria January 2-8, to bring Alexis home!?! Oops ;-) I began my journey yesterday afternoon as I boarded the first leg of my flights to Bulgaria. After the events of the past few weeks (we'll save all of those details for another post), I was VERY grateful for a fairly uneventful trip across the pond. Although my international flight to Frankfurt, Germany was an hour late getting in, I still managed to make it back through security and to my gate with 5 minutes to spare! I arrived in Sofia this afternoon, exhausted, but very happy to be back in this beautiful country to bring my Bulgarian firecracker home!

We will be leaving for Stara Zagora before the sun comes up tomorrow morning and, right now, I am just praying that I will actually be able to get a good night's sleep, despite the anticipation of seeing my precious girl for the first time in 5 months!

Tonight is the last night that Alexis will ever spend in an orphanage! Tomorrow the real adventure begins. . . .