More Love, Less Panic: 7 Lessons I Learned About Life, Love, and Parenting After We Adopted Our Son from Ethiopia

More Love, Less Panic: 7 Lessons I Learned About Life, Love, and Parenting After We Adopted Our Son from Ethiopia

by Claude Knobler
More Love, Less Panic: 7 Lessons I Learned About Life, Love, and Parenting After We Adopted Our Son from Ethiopia

More Love, Less Panic: 7 Lessons I Learned About Life, Love, and Parenting After We Adopted Our Son from Ethiopia

by Claude Knobler


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In this heartwarming and hilarious memoir, Claude Knobler describes how he learned the hard way that the apple actually can fall far from the tree—and that’s Okay.

Already the biological parents of a seven-year-old son and a five-year-old daughter, Claude Knobler and his wife decided to adopt Nati, a five-year-old Ethiopian boy who seemed different from Knobler in every conceivable way. After more than five years spent trying to turn his wild, silly, adopted African son into a quiet, neurotic, Jewish guy like himself, Knobler realized the importance of having the courage to love, accept, and let go of his children.

In this wonderfully written memoir, Knobler explains how his experiences raising Nati led him to learn a lesson that applied equally well to parenting his biological children: It’s essential to spend the time we are given with our children to love them and enjoy them, rather than push and mold them into who we think they should be.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399167959
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/02/2015
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Claude Knobler’s essays have appeared in Parenting and on NPR’s “This I Believe,” as well as in one of the radio program’s literary anthologies, This I Believe: On Fatherhood, and in Worldwide Orphans Foundation founder Dr. Jane Aronson’s Carried in Our Hearts: The Gift of Adoption: Inspiring Stories of Families Created Across Continents.

Read an Excerpt

I was far from home, away from my wife and kids, sitting in a dusty café in Addis Ababa, between a woman I’d never met and our five-year-old son, who didn’t speak a word of English.

Now, years later, my family looks very different from most. I have a son and a daughter who have lived their whole lives in Southern California and I have another son who spent the first five years of his life in Africa. My eldest son and my daughter grew up going to birthday parties at the beach and at Disneyland. My youngest child once was chased through his grandmother’s home by a stray hyena. As I said, my family is different than most.

This book is not about that.

This book is not about how my family is different than other people’s families because at heart, we are the same. I have learned many lessons since the day I sat in that café in Addis Ababa, but they were not lessons about how to parent a child who was different than me. They were lessons about how to parent all of my children. The only thing that’s different about my family is that sometimes the differences we shared made the lessons I learned stand out a bit more clearly.

Because my son was five years old when we met, I learned that it was far better to influence my kids than to try to control them. Because my son didn’t speak any English, I learned that I wasn’t very good at worrying, no matter how much I practiced. Because my son spent his first five years in Africa, I learned about perspective and seeing life through my kids’ eyes. Because every day of raising my son presented new challenges, I learned that not nearly perfect was, actually, more than good enough.

I will never forget the day I met my son, just as I will never forget the day any of my kids came into my life, no matter the circumstances. I was already a father, twice over when I met my son and his mother in that dusty café in Addis Ababa.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was about to learn everything I would ever need to know about being a parent.

To all three of my children.



How Nati’s Mother Taught Me about Letting Go

One day, my wife and I decided to adopt a child from Ethiopia, in spite of the fact that we had two perfectly good children right in our very own home.

We had our first child—our son Clay—when we’d been married for two years; our daughter, Grace, was born about two and a half years later. One boy, one girl, and that was that. Or at least that was the plan. I’d never wanted more than two kids. Truth was, raising two kids kept my wife and me so busy that sometimes it already felt like we had a dozen. And adoption was never something we’d considered or even discussed, except in the vaguest “we really ought to do something for the world, like adopt a needy orphan or sell all of Clay’s and Grace’s toys and give the money to the homeless” sort of way. The first time I can really remember my wife and me even really discussing the idea was after I’d read an article in our Sunday newspaper about the AIDS crisis in Ethiopia.

The story was straightforward. “What Will Become of Africa’s AIDS Orphans,” by Melissa Faye Greene, described how the AIDS epidemic in Ethiopia had left countless children orphaned and in need of care. I suppose I’ve read a lot of articles over the years that were similar to that one in some ways, but this was different. The way that story was told moved me in ways that no other story had.

That was my first lesson.

So much of parenting seems to be about control. My children were six and four years old. Because I was a stay-at-home dad, I was in charge of feeding them, dressing them, and getting them to bed at night. In charge. Because that’s what parents expect to be. In control. It was, I believed, my job to make my children into successful, intelligent, kind, thoughtful adults capable of professional and personal excellence. Also, my wife wanted grandchildren. But not too soon. I was well meaning, determined, and focused on doing my job as a parent as it was possible to be. After all, I was in charge.

And yet when it came to one of the most important life-changing decisions I’d ever make, I was more or less carried along by the current. The paper came. I read an article. I said a few things to my wife. My life changed forever.

•   •   •

EVEN THOUGH MY LIFE was simpler before our third child came home to us, it often felt more complicated. I worried about Grace’s nap schedule and the all-important question of whether she was getting enough midday sleep. I worried that Clay was far too cautious during recess. Why was he more interested in exploring the cracks on the pavement than in the basketball games being played all around him? Was he aggressive enough to succeed in the world? And what about the food they ate? Clay was a picky eater. Grace wasn’t all that fussy, but still I worried. . . . Living in Los Angeles, where almost everyone we knew had at some point dealt with body issues, had left me worried about how to feed my kids. I wanted Clay to eat enough so he’d grow, but I didn’t want to put out so much food every day that I somehow wound up contributing to Grace’s developing any kind of problems later on in her life. It seemed to me then that every choice I made could and would forever determine not only what sort of lives my kids would have but who they would forever be. My life felt more complicated than it does now—not because it actually was more complicated but because I was convinced that my every action could, if properly executed, ensure that my children would lead lives of unending good fortune and success. My life felt complicated and burdensome because I was trying to carry more than anyone really could. I was, in many ways, like a man complaining about how heavy his car is, because he’s trying to lift it instead of just getting in and driving.

And then the Sunday paper came.

I read that story that I’d found buried between the sports sections and the front page. I gave the article to my wife and then, after she’d read it and had a good cry, I said, almost casually, “You know, we could adopt a kid from there.”

And here, I have to be honest. I’ve gotten a lot of compliments about deciding to adopt. My favorite, I think, was when my sister said, “You know, you could rob a bank or two and still go to heaven.” I’m very proud of what my wife and I decided to do. But the truth, the absolute 100 percent real truth of the story, is that I never ever thought my wife would do it.

It’s not that I didn’t think my wife was a good person. She was and is. It’s just that Mary and I already had a full life. We had our two kids, who we adored, friends, family . . . pretty much everything we needed. We weren’t looking to add anything to our life, except maybe, since our kids were both so young, a bit more free time. Maybe some naps. But another kid? No way.

Mary and I had met about ten years before that magazine article. I had been complaining to my friend Paul that my life felt dull and predictable. Paul wisely told me that if I was bored, I should start doing things that scared me. And so, since I was single, I decided I’d try asking out the prettiest girl I saw at a party I was going to, whoever she turned out to be. That was Mary. I got her phone number, and not long after, Paul got to be my best man at our wedding. When I tell my kids now that I fell in love with Mary just ten seconds into our first phone call, I always think that I must sound ridiculous, but it really did happen that way. I fell in love that quickly and I never fell out.

We were married a year after we met, and we had our son two years after that. Two more years passed and we had a daughter. We had two kids, two dogs, and each other. We had the usual difficulties parents of young kids have, the ones that come with not sleeping a full night for months and years at a time, but I’ve never really gotten over the happy surprise I felt when I realized that someone like Mary wanted to be with me.

Still, as wonderful as I think Mary is, I was pretty sure I was in the clear when I gave her that article. Because I knew there was no way she’d be crazy enough to say yes.

Bragging rights. The high ground. A slight bit of moral superiority over my wife. These are the things I was really after. A child? Not so very much.

No, I’m not proud to say it, but the truth is, I was just looking to score some cheap points. My plan was to say we could adopt a child and then have Mary think it over before deciding that having another kid would just be too hard on us. I would go along with her decision.

But, of course, Mary would know. Always. Every time I forgot to put my dishes in the dishwasher, every time I decided to stay home and watch a game instead of going to brunch with her family . . . she’d know that I was the sort of guy willing to do remarkable and wonderful stuff, if only, you know, she’d have let me. I’m not saying I made the offer to adopt a child from Ethiopia just so that my wife couldn’t give me a hard time when I blew off taking out the trash, but yeah, that was a part of it, and, sad to say, it’s not even the worst part.

The worst part was that I knew she’d tell our friends about how I was ready to adopt a needy orphan. I’d mention it casually to a few people too. Word would spread about my offer. And yes, when I died, I would probably go to heaven, even if I did decide to rob a bank or two. Was I genuinely moved by the article? Of course. Had I given some actual thought to the idea of adoption? Some, sure. Do dogs ever think about what it would be like to drive the cars they chase? Could be. But in my case, it never, ever occurred to me that my wife would say yes.

It was such a good plan.

How lucky am I that it didn’t work?

Say for a moment that the paper hadn’t come that week, or imagine that I’d spilled milk on the magazine section and thrown it out before I’d read it. I truly believe to the core of my being that my whole life, and the lives of my kids, would have been forever different. I had never planned on adopting a child. I had never considered adopting a child. Even when I suggested we consider adopting a child, I wasn’t really considering adopting a child.

Believe me when I say there were days, weeks even, when I thought the only lesson I’d learned was not to read the Sunday paper. That Nati was from Ethiopia, spoke no English, and was a total stranger to us at age five was, in some ways, the least of the challenges he presented. Day after day it was made clear to me that Nati not only looked different from me, but he was different from me. Louder, sillier, more assertive. And so I began to find that I had to change and evolve as a parent in order to keep up with him. But it was because we were in such an extreme situation that I began to see what parts of my parenting style worked and what parts didn’t. Eventually, because of all my struggles to parent a son who was so different from me in so many ways, I realized something that was to forever change the way I parented and the way I lived.

I don’t want the last word.

It was, for me anyway, counterintuitive. Having the last word feels like a parent’s right, obligation, and duty. We can see so much that our kids can’t see. We know how much better off they’d be if they worked just a little harder. We understand that the boy or girl they like is all wrong for them. We know that if they only did a few more things after school, ran for class president, joined a club, learned to play the tuba, or cured just one tiny little disease, they’d get into a better school and be better off forever. We know more than they do. When I was growing up, the last words of so many arguments with my parents tended to be, “Because I said so.”

“You’ll do it because I said so, because I know best and that’s the way it’s got to be.” And so we demand the last word. Do your chores. Share your toys. You must follow our curfews and rules and expectations. Because we know best. Because we said so, that’s why. Oh, and one day, you’ll thank us. Because when you’re a parent you’ll understand. Sound familiar?

And yet we all know that we can’t really control quite as much as we’d like to control. No matter how much better we’d be at living our children’s lives for them, kids insist on making their own choices. Whether it’s a kid picking the wrong boyfriend, college, or best friend, or just refusing to practice the flute no matter how much it may increase her chances of going to an Ivy League school one day, we are continually confronted with the limits of our own power.

It’s not much of a choice, or at least it doesn’t seem to be. Either we can let our kids make their own rotten choices (and let’s not fool ourselves, children do make some really rotten choices) or we can live in conflict with our kids, butting heads and demanding that they do what we say no matter what. We can condemn ourselves to ten or fifteen years of arguments and misery in our own homes, or condemn our children to a lifetime of mediocrity and the sorts of diminished options you get when you drop out of the rotten college you got into because you didn’t study hard enough for your SAT in order to marry the loser you stayed out with because you didn’t have a curfew. On the left, misery; on the right, despair . . . which is it to be?

It was that Sunday paper that showed me the third way. It took a good long while; a trip to Africa, a child and a woman I tried with all my heart and cowardly soul to avoid meeting, but eventually it became clear enough so that even I could see it. That third way, the way of having the first word instead of the last, is what I learned after I adopted that child I hadn’t planned on actually adopting. I had to find it in order to stay sane with that kid from Africa who looked and acted so differently from my wife, my two other children, and me, but to my surprise that third way wound up working with all three of my kids, the one I adopted and the two I already had. This book is about that third way and all the mistakes I made along the way. But first, well, first the paper came.

I didn’t spill my milk on it. I read a story and made a kind of sort of casual comment to my wife about kind of sort of maybe adopting a kid. Someday.

And then we did.

June 2, 2004

Dear Mary,

I’m being charged only 3 birr per minute to use the hotel computer; that’s about thirty-three cents to you and me, but I’m not feeling all that well, so I’m still going to make this pretty quick. Nati is sitting on the floor by my feet, singing a song in Amharic and doing a coloring book. He sings all the time. This morning we both got up at around 6:30; I’d actually been up most of the night, but he gave me a big smile when he woke up and scooted over for a hug. We tried to watch some TV, and hung out. He watched an Arabic version of Sesame Street and some Barney. Later we caught the tail end of the movie How the Grinch Stole Christmas. After that, we had some trouble. There’s a bidet in the bathroom and he started to turn on the water. I said “no” then left the bathroom. When I came back he had turned it on and flooded the floor. I gave him a big NO and then took him into the bedroom. He cried and wouldn’t make eye contact to talk to me, so I just let him cry and sulk for a few minutes while I cleaned up the water. Then I said, “Daddy say no, Nati no, not Nati yes . . .” or some other such gibberish. Anyway, I think he got the message. Or not, hard to say. He has a lot of willfulness. He smiles and wants to get along, but then he does what he wants anyway.

Oh Mary, I’m sorry I’m not doing a better job of telling you everything that goes on, but I’m so tired and a bit sick and this keyboard is killing my wrists and . . . and . . . I don’t know, I’m really looking forward to coming home. This has been really hard, tiring, and emotional. I guess it’s like childbirth; you know it’s going to hurt, you just can’t really prepare for it. But Nati is a good boy and I think he’ll do fine, or at least I think that when I’m not in a crazed panic.

As for Ethiopia, I’m with your friend Sara, I’d be very happy to never ever come back. The hotel is stunning, but there are tin huts just across from the big beautiful hotel driveway. The people are poor, it’s not a safe feeling being outside; all in all I’d have to say I’d have rather adopted a kid from London.

And Nati is still at my feet, singing and coloring in his book. He holds my hands all the time, is very affectionate, loves, loves, loves the light-up sneakers we got him, loves elevators and oh, he really dug the Silly Putty I brought him. I thought I’d be able to do that Silly Putty trick where you copy a comic onto the Silly Putty and then stretch it out, but it didn’t work with the Ethiopian paper or his coloring book. He didn’t know the experiment had failed though so now he just happily pushes the Silly Putty down on the paper for no reason at all. Plus when we were watching TV I didn’t know what channels he wanted. He kept saying some Amharic word, like din, so I asked, “din yes? or din no?” making a face so he’d know what I meant. Now every time I switch channels he says, “din yes, din no.”

Okay, soon I’m off to the Hilton to confirm my reservation for the flight home. I really, really don’t want to get bumped off the flight, which I hear sometimes happens on flights from Ethiopia.

Did I mention I love you and miss you more than I can ever say?

And I am now being treated to an Amharic version of Ring around the Rosie.

Life is a very odd thing.

I love you, I love you, I love you, and I love you some more.



To my surprise and alarm, Mary said that maybe thinking about adopting might be a good thing. And so we began. Slowly and tentatively. Just enough to change our lives forever.

It’s funny. When you decide to have a kid the usual way, you really ought to know that you’re not in charge right from the start. You don’t normally get to pick whether your child will be a boy or a girl; you have no say in their hair color, height, or personality. It’s a roll of the dice. Looking back, I know that by the time we had Clay and Grace, I was already making plans for who I’d “help” them to be, but even with all my hopes/expectations about their futures, on some level I knew I had no idea what I was getting into.

With adoption, we literally were going to get to choose our child. Which should have meant we were in control. And it’s true that because we’d read an article about orphans in Ethiopia, Mary and I had decided that if we adopted, we would adopt a child from that country.

Both of us have been asked why we didn’t simply adopt a child from our own country, and both of us have answered that question with a series of very honest shrugs. There are needy children everywhere, but for us, it was always clear that either we would adopt a child from Ethiopia or we wouldn’t adopt at all. Perhaps it was the article we read; perhaps we’d been called in some spiritual way; perhaps we just wanted to rule out 99 percent of the globe so that if we didn’t find a child from Ethiopia to adopt we’d be off scot-free, but there it is; for us, that part of it was easy. We dealt with one adoption agency and focused on the children in one country. If nothing else, through the process of geographical elimination, we’d made choosing a child, if not easy, then at least easier.

Now all we had to do was decide if we really were going to adopt and then, who? The choice, after all, was ours. Right?

My love,

Well, it’s 1:45 pm here, which means you’re fast asleep, so I can’t call, so you’ll have to settle for e—mail.

Today we went with our guide Salemech to the open market, which was pretty unpleasant. There were lots of beggars, as well as young boys herding goats through the main streets. Salemech told me that people will just stop and buy a goat to bring home to kill for dinner. At one point a mule ran down the main road of the market place, something which I can’t quite imagine happening at our local mall. Apparently its owner felt it needed some exercise. Or maybe he thought I needed the exercise, I just barely managed to sprint out of the mule’s way before it ran me over. People were selling shoes as far as the eye can see, old shoes and old clothes. Not much you’d want to buy, but it was sooo good to be out of the hotel. Nati was very sweet and well-behaved. In fact, he’s with me now, watching me type this with great fascination. He’s a really sweet guy, at least he seems to be, with the language gulf, he may be walking around calling me “dufus” all day. Anyway, after the big market we went to Churchill Road to buy some junk/remembrances and that was very nice. Churchill Road is what, I guess, would pass for upscale here, it’s really just a fairly calm street, with a few goats but no runaway mules. There are a bunch of little storefronts that sell little statues of lions and jewelry to tourists. Nati got a musical instrument thing, which he loved and was very proud of and I bought all sorts of stuff for Clay and Grace. We even stopped at a little coffee shop, so that Nati could have some “dabo and chai,” bread and tea. I passed on the pastry for myself though, I haven’t been able to hold down the thought of food for a few days now. Then we went back to the hotel, he colored, I was sick, we had some soda, it was all very nice. (I think that’s the upside of being in a place where mules run wild down the main streets; I now think of getting sick as just a chance to be alone quietly for a few minutes.)

Oh, and remember the green windbreaker jacket you made me pack? He’s wearing it, complete with the hood, right now, even though we’re inside. Very cute.

I love you.


Going to Ethiopia to see the kids in person before deciding which, if any of them, we’d adopt, was pretty much out of the question. We knew of only one other couple who’d gone to Ethiopia to select which child to adopt, and that was secondhand. A woman who’d gone to pick up her new daughter had run into a very blond, very cheerful couple who were, it seemed, working their way through some of Ethiopia’s many orphanages, “interviewing” various kids for the job of being their son or daughter. Forget the cruelty of raising and then dashing so many children’s hopes of finding a loving family, and you’re still left with the problem of what can you possibly learn about any child when you’re standing in the middle of an orphanage surrounded by dozens of kids, none of whom speak English, all of whom are desperate to find new homes.

We also knew a family that, having chosen a child to adopt, went to Ethiopia before the adoption became official to check out the kid, but they’d regretted it. Once you’ve chosen your child, there’s a wait period of about five months; the family had told the little boy he was going to be joining their family, and then the father had flown out to meet his son. Satisfied that the child was not a homicidal maniac and would fit in well with the rest of the family, the father returned to America alone. His son, having met his new father, then had to wait five months to join his new family, which, in the end, proved to make things only harder for everyone.

So instead of traveling to Ethiopia, we watched videos.

Hi Mary,

I just got back from the goodbye party at Nati’s orphanage. I don’t want to spend too much time typing, Nati’s with me, of course, and I want to let him chill for a bit before we meet little Des, Nati’s friend from the orphanage, and his new mother, Dr. Jane, for dinner but I did want to give you some quick impressions of the party.

Dr. Jane was oohing and aahing over the orphanage and how all of the caregivers loved and knew all of the kids, but I have to say for me, with nothing to compare it to, it was pretty dismal. The classrooms are tiny, little shacks really. My head almost touched the roof. The kids seem okay, though it’s pretty crazy, of course. (And right now, in case you’re wondering, Nati is by my side singing up a storm. He’s a real Knobler, not happy unless he’s talking.)

I brought those balloon rockets to the orphanage, they were a huge, huge hit. For a while there it was like Beatle mania. I’d blow up a balloon, kids were all around me, then I’d let the thing go and they run after it. I actually had to stop when it got too crazy. I took tons of photos, it rained a bit, but everyone was excited to pose for pictures and then see the image on the digital screen.

I don’t know what else to say, I’m overwhelmed, but Nati seems so happy and at ease with the idea of having a whole new family that I now fear he may be psychotic.

Anyway, the orphanage, though wonderful by Jane’s standards, seemed crowded, dirty, and awful, but then, compared to the rest of the country, it’s not so bad.

Okay, gotta run, Nati is bugging people here with his singing. Guess I’m off for a two-hour private concert.



•   •   •

SOMETIME BEFORE THE INTERNET MADE dating as easy as logging on to, there was something called video dating. Single men and women sat in front of a camera; talked about themselves and their interests, what they liked and what they didn’t; and then paid a small fee so that other single people could look at their tape. When two people liked each other’s videos, they made a date. Oddly enough, what we did to adopt a child was not all that different from video dating.

Once a month, the orphanage in Ethiopia sent out a tape to an agency here in the United States featuring as many as fifty children. The agency sent the tape to our house; we then would watch the tape to see if any of the children featured were someone we’d want to adopt. There were, of course, differences; unlike in video dating, we were talking about a lifetime commitment and not whether we’d agree to go out to dinner and a movie, and yet, unlike in video dating, there was not much talking on the tape. Each child appeared on our screen for perhaps ten or fifteen seconds, just long enough for them to smile and then say their age and name.

The names were all foreign-sounding, of course; nothing that, for me anyway, gave any comfort. As foolish as it may sound, tell me that you know two children, one named Jim and one named Stanley, and I can’t help but think I know something about them both. But Dagwit? Wendimu? Kidist? I was desperate to know who they were, but with names like those, I felt wholly and totally lost.

Table of Contents

Preface xi

Lesson 1 It's Better to Influence than to Control: How Nati's Mother Taught Me about Letting Go 1

Lesson 2 Worrying Doesn't Help When You Don't Know How to Worry: How Knowing Only Four Words of My Son's Language Taught Me to Give Up Being Afraid 65

Lesson 3 There Are No Apples on Oak Trees: How Trying to Turn My Ethiopian Son into a Neurotic Jew Taught Me It's Nature, Not Nurture 117

Lesson 4 Eat through their Eyes: How a Piñata and Some Mushy Food Taught Me Perspective 149

Lesson 5 Less than Perfect is Perfect Enough: How Not Yelling at My Son for Almost Six Whole Seconds Taught Me It's Okay to Get It All Wrong 185

Lesson 6 Everything Bad is Everything Good: How the Sound of Thirty Kindergarteners Chanting Taught Me Context Is Everything 201

Lesson 7 Grandparent Your Kids: How Mom and Dad Two Times Taught Me How To Happily Love My Kids 223

Epilogue: Family Photos 239

Acknowledgments 249

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“This is one of the most beautiful stories about making a happy family that I have ever read.”
—Dr. Jane Aronson, CEO of Worldwide Orphans Foundation

“For a raw, honest, as it happens account of an older child cross cultural adoption, I've yet to read better than this… Great read for adoptive families.”
— KJ Dell’Antonia, New York Times Motherlode blog

“Memoir meets self-help in Knobler’s enjoyable account of life as an adoptive father. This wise account has the potential to reach a large parental audience—not just dads, and not just adoptive parents.”
Publishers Weekly

“This is a breakthrough book on many levels, not the least of which is the world of men who are redefining themselves as whole human beings, capable of nurturing on their own terms.”
Retailing Insight


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