Fifteen Years

Fifteen years. It’s been fifteen years since we said I do.

We were babies (almost literally – I can’t believe we got married when I was 20). We had no idea how much we didn’t know.

And as I look back on these fifteen years of glory, my instinct is to go to the “high points,” the mountaintop experiences and accomplishments. We’ve had plenty of those. We’ve traveled the world together.

(And the small joys – ohmygoodness, I laugh every time I see the forehead hickey you gave yourself!)

We’ve brought two babies into this world.

And we’ve added two more to our family through adoption.

Our 15 years of marriage have been filled with incredible joy.

And yet…I’ve had that line from Hallelujah running through my head – “love is not a victory march; it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”

We’ve had our fair share of cold and broken hallelujahs too.

We’ve done counseling and Zoloft. We’ve had our fights. I’ve dropped to my knees and cried out to God in tearful prayers of brokenness and desperation. We’ve looked death in the face (I just can’t bring myself to post the pictures here right now, but, readers, you can scroll back through these posts if you haven’t seen them already).

I don’t know what the next 15 years hold for us. A part of me is terrified to find out.

And yet – I trust that no matter what happens, we are a team, united together ’til death do us part.

When we start to drift away, I trust that we’ll turn back toward one another, over and over and over again.

I’m thankful for many years of knowing you, of doing life with you, of reading good books and having great conversations, of being real and genuine and vulnerable, of hurting each other and making amends, of hard work, of loving and serving, of triumphs and celebrations, of victory marches and broken hallelujahs. And I pray that we’ll have many more to come.

Telling Stories to Work Through Scary Stuff

One of the hardest things for me, as a parent, is knowing how to help my kids work through hard stuff when they’re resistant to doing that work. I love my kids, and I know it’s best for them not to try to bury their feelings – but I also can’t force them to share with me or anyone else what is going on in their hearts.

Last weekend, Miranda had an experience that brought up some big feelings for her. Our two oldest girls have been taking horseback riding lessons for almost a year now, and Miranda had fallen a couple times before, but on Sunday, she had her first big, scary fall, and it really caught her off guard. She was scared, and she was angry, and it wasn’t until the very end of the lesson time that her instructor, Courtney, and I were able to get her back up on the horse. Courtney, thankfully, is amazing and was willing to meet Miranda exactly where she needed to be met and take extra time and offer the right mix of firmness with encouragement, which went a long way.

I could tell that, as Miranda walked around the arena riding Ian, with Courtney right beside her talking with her, a lot of the tension was dissipating, and I was so glad she was willing to get back up.

Miranda riding Ian with Courtney walking right next to her – I love this picture of encouragement and support and being right there with someone as they do hard things

But the big feelings were still there. Monday was a rough day at our house. I mentioned all of this to some friends, and one of them (Meghan Scanlan LCSW – if you’re in the Denver area and need a family therapist, you should probably look her up!) suggested that I have Miranda write a narrative about it and illustrate it and read and re-read and re-read it. That’s a strategy that can often help kids process traumatic events.

This is very similar to a strategy outlined by Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson in The Whole Brain Child – Name It to Tame It: Telling Stories to Calm Big Emotions, which you can read more about here, and I’d actually considered doing something like that…but even knowing what I know about trauma and its effects, I’d still debated  – did I want to bring it up? Would looking at it more just keep it all in the forefront of her mind and make it all worse? Would it ruin any possibility of us being able to get in another lesson and another positive experience before our beloved riding instructor moves 2 hours away for her new job? But no, it was clear that Miranda really needed to work through this experience and her feelings about it, and helping her to do that needed to be a priority for me.

Tuesday morning I told her that instead of having her doing any sort of regular Language Arts with me that day, I wanted her to work with me to write and illustrate a book about her fall off of Ian and getting back up again. She was a bit reluctant, but I agreed to be her scribe and write down all the words for her if she would just dictate, and she could do all the illustrating. I wasn’t sure how she’d do with giving all of the background information and sharing about the events leading up to the fall, talking about the fall itself, and then describing working through her feelings and getting back up on Ian again afterward, but with some gentle prompting, she was able to tell and illustrate the whole story.

And it was like a weight lifted off of her shoulders. She could talk about it without all of the emotion taking over. She decided she wanted to make copies of her book to give to some friends. She’s been reading through it multiple times a day, with no prompting from me.

And she’s excited to go ride again this weekend.

I’m so glad she was willing to get back up on the horse after she fell, and I’m so glad she has been willing to do the emotional work to process all of what she has been feeling. I want to help my kids to grow up to be adults who can get back up and try again after having a bad experience and who have the bravery and strength to do emotional work to process difficult stuff. I think Miranda’s journey this week has been a step in building toward that.

Note: This story has been shared with Miranda’s permission. 

Telling My Kids Their Stories

All four of my children love to hear stories about themselves – particularly when those stories are relayed with joy and laughter. We all love the story about Atticus making pee dinosaurs on the couch (though we try not to tell it too often when he is around, for fear of encouraging future artistic endeavors of this sort!). We all find it hilarious that when I took the girls to our Mandarin teacher’s baby shower, FangFang was so excited to interact with other Chinese people that she approached all of them, saying, “Ni hao ma?” (“How are you?”)…but not being exactly fluent in Mandarin anymore, she had no idea what any of them were saying and followed up their responses with another enthusiastic, “Ni hao ma?” Miranda likes to hear about how, when we were traveling to China to adopt Madeleine CaiQun, as our airplane for our international flight taxied away from the gate in Detroit, she announced, “We’re almost to China!” We all laugh about how Matt used to pull Madeleine CaiQun’s pants up super high every time he changed her diaper, and she’d run back into the room, filled with glee, announcing to Miranda and me, “What Baba do?!?!”

(no super high pants – but I just couldn’t resist including a photo of my precious little Madeleine CaiQun from those early days home!)

Those stories are adorable and fun, but each of my children have deeper stories, the narrative arcs of their lives. For my two biological children, not only do they have big picture stories, but they have frequent photos, preserved “coming home from the hospital” outfits, favorite baby toys, and our recollections of their everyday moments. For my adopted children, it’s a bit different. In both of their cases, until they reached about 2 years old, I really have just a few pieces of paper and a couple photos for each of them. I can’t tell them what they smelled like as I snuggled their tiny newborn bodies against me, and I can’t tell them what their first foods or favorite toys were. And that makes the information and the photographs that we do have that much more precious. Those details are sacred.

FangFang asks with regularity, “Mom, you tell me my whole story?” And I walk her through it, in broad 4-year-old terms, from day one of her life until now, telling her what we know of her life. She delights in that and loves to hear it all, again and again. When I leave out details, she asks about those – “Mom, you tell me about the bed where I sleep when we were in China?” Some of the interest in hearing her story is, I expect, about seeking reassurance that we are permanent, and some of it is a straightforward desire to know and hear her own story.

And this week, Madeleine CaiQun asked, in a quiet moment, if I would tell her her whole story. “Not with everyone, though. Just you and me and Miranda. Is it my choice who I want to hear my story?”

“Yes, it is your story, and it is always your choice who you want to share it with.”

And so, as God would have it, my mom has been visiting this week, so I was able to leave the little kids downstairs, so I could sit upstairs with just Madeleine CaiQun and pull out that special folder, containing all of the documents I have about my precious girl’s first years. I got out her referral file folder, as well as the other sparse documents and photos we have from her life before us, and she and I sat together, just the two of us, and looked through them all. I read to her the description of her that the orphanage submitted with her file, all the details of her finding spot and what the orphanage officials shared about their impressions of her, what they wrote about the special need with which they had labelled her.

She has, of course, known her story from the beginning of her days with us. We’ve continually sketched out for her a developmentally appropriate outline of it. But this week was the first time we’d put all the pieces entirely together and spelled it all out for her precisely. And it was good. She needs to know, and she deserves to know, and, at almost 8, she’s ready for the details.

After we looked through the artifacts of her history, she and I snuggled in bed with Miranda joining us, too, and she asked me to tell her the whole story of what we know of her life and her coming into our family, from beginning to end, and I did.

She had some questions, as we talked about the particulars, and I answered them as accurately and as kindly as I could. She deserves those gentle, honest answers, and she deserves to have them from me. Her story is hers, and even I do not own its details. It is hers to know and to share as she chooses.

I expect that Matt and I will continue to talk through our girls’ stories with them in the years to come. We are all continually making sense of who we are and from where we came, and adoption adds another layer of complexity to that investigation. I’m proud to walk with my girls on their journeys and hope that I can honor them and their stories now and in the years to come.

Note: As my kids are getting older, we have increasing discussions about their comfort level with information and stories I share on my blog, and Madeleine CaiQun has authorized the sharing of this blog post.

Dream Homes

One evening, as I was scrolling through Facebook, I saw an ad for a house listing. The home looked beautiful – older, 3 stories, brick, and a nice yard. The interior reflected wonderfully done updates. And of course its price is approximately five times the value of our home! There’s no way we’d ever be able to purchase it, but I told Matt and the kids that something like that might be my dream home.

That led to a conversation with the big girls about what their dream homes would be. I treasure those moments – the fun discussions, just learning more about where each child’s heart is and what they would create if they had no constraints. I want to remember more of these sweet conversations, these treasures of children growing older, and so I’m recording this one here as a witness, to look back upon with joy in future years, as well.

This is how Miranda describes her dream house:

It would be a purple castle with 4 large triangular peaks and windows. There would be a ton of windows surrounding so we could see if an enemy was trying to come. There are always lovely dinners served of paprika and for dessert always cupcakes and peep cake. It would have 6 bathrooms with 6 mirrors, one for each person at their appropriate height, 2 sinks, 1 for boys, 1 girls in each bathroom, and 2 shiny purple bathtubs. At the gate there are pink and golden bars, and there is a big pink drawbridge over a big moat filled with peeps that are rainbow colored and pink and white – each peep is a rabbit. The courtyard has a ton of Hatchimals – about 1,000 – and birds and plenty of trees for them to nest in. There are 6 bedrooms. One is purple with a king size and queen size bed for Mommy & Daddy (the beds are connected). One is a blue room with dinosaur and panda wallpaper with small bed with panda blanket and pillows and king size bed with dinosaur blankets and pillows for FangFang and Atticus. One is a rainbow room with pink and white added, too, and My Little Ponies painted all over the wall with bunk beds with My Little Pony sheets and pillows for MeiMei and me. The other 3 bedrooms are for guests. They’re green, blue, and red. There are king size beds in the red room and blue room and a queen size bed in green room. There is also a big living room that is always kept clean with a big pink and purple striped rug, 1 big purple couch and big purple chair for Dad and 10 pillows on the couches (5 each). The other couch is pink. There are 3 pink pillows and 2 purple on the pink couch and 3 purple pillows and 2 pink on the purple couch. There is also a dining room, and there is a kitchen where all the beautiful and wonderful foods are made. There is a playroom with tons of toys – panda toys, peep toys, Hatchimals, My Little Ponies,  and dinosaurs. There are also royal cats – a father, a mother, and 8 kittens. Four kittens are black boys like their father, and 4 are calico girls like their mother.  There are also horses – 1 that can use magic (a unicorn), 1 that can fly (a Pegasus), an alacorn that can use magic and fly, and a “rainbow colored horse that is just normal.” There is a royal sunroom where the cats can go to play, and it’s warm enough for them to use it every single day. There is a royal throne room with 2 gigantic thrones for Mom and Dad, 2 medium thrones on either side for MeiMei and me, beside those are 2 small thrones for FangFang and Atticus. There are tons of paintings all over the castle of pet horses and cats and such other things you might think of like wonderful desserts and meals. And the last room is half a royal nursery and half an eye examining place to see if anyone needs glasses.

Madeleine CaiQun describes her dream home this way:

It is a light pink castle with a light pink wall and a moat and a drawbridge and flowers on the castle wall. The bathroom would have a pretty pink bathtub and mirrors, each at appropriate heights for people to see themselves and a sink for each of the people at their perfect height. There would be 3 bedrooms. One has a big bed with pink sheets for Mommy and Daddy. One is blue and has dinosaur wallpaper and a crib with pandas all over it and a blanket with a big panda face, and the bed has dinosaur pillows and dinosaur blankets. One is purple with 1 huge bed for 2 people with My Little Pony wallpaper and 2 dressers. The bed has My Little Pony sheets and pillows and blankets. The living room has cat wallpaper and couches with cats on them and pink carpet. There is a playroom with My Little Pony wallpaper and pink carpet and shelves with toys. Some toys are My Little Ponies, some are pandas, and some are dinosaurs. For pets, there are 3 cats – one kitten, one mother, one father. There are also a unicorn and Pegasus and an alacorn (unicorn with wings) and a few normal horses whose colors are brown and a rainbow mane with white body. The flowers are pretty – pink, purple, and all the other colors of the rainbow. The wall of the castle has a gate with golden bars.

I love hearing what my kiddos come up with and share, given the opportunity!

FAQ – My Child is So Controlling and Manipulative! What do I do?!

In a large Facebook parenting group that I was recently asked to help moderate, we see certain questions come up over and over again. One of those questions is some form of the following: “My child wants to be in control of everything,” or, “My child is so manipulative,” or “My child is constantly engaging in control battles with me,” all followed by the query, “What do I do?!?!”

I recently wrote a post for that group in an attempt to provide a broad framework for understanding how to address that question, and I’m sharing the response here more publicly.

There are a couple key points to understanding how to respond and what to do. First – it is worth noting that control, in and of itself, is not generally a need. As one of my co-moderators pointed out, if you look at hierarchies of needs proposed in the field of psychology, “control” is not one of them. For instance, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs lists physiological needs (like food, water, and shelter), safety needs, belongingness and love needs, esteem needs, and finally, self-actualization. Nowhere in there is “control” listed as a need – but rather, it would be understood as a means to pursuing the meeting of those needs.

The obvious and important follow-up question would be: what need is my child attempting to meet by pursuing control? If control is not a need in and of itself, but rather an attempt to meet a need, what is the need our children are trying to meet? We need to be detectives and attempt to find the answer to that question. Our children are precious souls. One of our core values in this group is that, “We believe that every child is precious, infinitely valuable, and worthy of love and respect, regardless of their history or challenges.” Let’s really commit to viewing our children that way. When we tell their stories, even to ourselves, with words like, “My child is a manipulative jerk,” we are not honoring our children or their stories. We can, instead, ask ourselves what underlying need is beneath the behavior, working to view our children in the best light possible and understand them and their stories.

Many of our children have come from hard places. They may have learned, through years of experience, that adults are not reliable. They may have learned that there will not always be enough food. They may have learned that they can trust no one else to provide and care for them. Is it any wonder that they would crave control? It often takes years of consistency in our provision and care, years of building trust, before the strength of the messages we’re trying to send – “I will care for you. You are safe here.” – can truly begin to rival the strength of the messages our kids have internalized from their time before us. Even for children who are not from hard places, their desire for control has sources and reasons – and our job as their parents is to help them figure out what those are.

Then we can acknowledge our children’s fear. We can put words to their feelings. We can empathize with them. As they grow, we can help them to understand why their brains operate in this way.

We can also provide the combination of structure and nurture that begins to combat our kids’ feelings of lack of safety.

An essential part of that is sharing control. Our children need to know that they have a voice. Yes, you are the parent, and you are in charge – of course. But your children need to see that you will listen to them, that you hear them when they communicate what they need. Prioritize your “nos” and give “yeses” when you can. Whenever possible, reserve your “no” for situations in which safety is a true concern; and try to create an environment in which you can minimize the number of “nos” you need to give. Whenever possible, say yes. Yes, you may have that piece of gum. Yes, you may have a snack. Yes, you may choose your own outfit today. Yes, we can play outside. Yes, you may have a compromise. Yes, yes, yes. I am in charge, but I do not need to have sole control over every area of our lives.

As our kids grow, we can challenge them in small ways – set the bar low and begin to build their tolerance for a “no” – but that is always done in the framework of love and wanting to see our children grow, and it’s not the first step. We, as parents, are in a unique position of understanding and building relationships with our children and ultimately teaching them that they can trust, that they can experience safety, and that they can get their needs met without attempting to take control.

Last, and this is HUGE – is the observation that if there are control battles going on between us and our children, that means that we are also fighting to maintain control in these situations. We, as parents, are seeing whatever is happening with our children from a framework of control – and that means it is worth considering whether we ourselves are predisposed to view the world in general through a lens of control. That has nothing to do with our children – it’s about us. If this is true of us, before we can help our children, we need to do some hard work ourselves. How do I know? Because this is me. I crave control. It took a lot of self-reflection, prayer, and counseling to figure out why I like to feel in control, when that tendency is strongest, how to pay attention to my mind and body to notice when I’m feeling that desire for control, and what to do when it happens. In parenting, we have a responsibility for recognizing what we bring to the table and dealing with our own junk. As I do that, I am increasingly able to understand my children’s points of view and share control with them. Let’s let control be another area in which we work with our children, not in opposition to them.