Refresh Chicago 2017

About 2 weeks ago, I embarked upon what I believe was my first weekend getaway without husband or children in my nearly 7.5 years of motherhood – and it was glorious.

Don’t get me wrong – I love my family deeply, and had I yearned for weekends away prior to this point, there would have been ways to make it work. Last spring, I heard about the Refresh Chicago conference, and it sounded like some of the other adoptive moms with whom I’ve connected on Facebook were going to make the trip, and I mentioned it to Matt, who announced that I should make it happen. I went ahead and registered, and I convinced one of my best friends, Marisa – who is now just weeks away from becoming an adoptive mom herself! – that she should come with me.

I wasn’t exactly sure until recently exactly how I’d handle the travel details, but I need to give a huge shout-out to Chosen and Dearly Loved for truly facilitating that part of my trip to the conference. They blessed us with a matching grant when we were in process to adopt FangFang, and they reached out to their families this summer to ask if people were interested in going to this conference and offer grants to help make that happen. They paid for a huge portion of my costs of attending the conference. To my knowledge, they are the only grant organization that offers post-placement support, in addition to support during the adoption process, and that is such a huge need, that I am really thrilled to see them stepping into.

Because of that, I was able to fly to the conference without worrying about the cost, and that made it so much easier than having to negotiate the logistics of train or megabus or rental car travel. Plus I arrived in time to have tea with one of my good friends from our Chicagoland days! It was so nice to get that little bit of time to connect with her again in person. Then the rest of the trip was pretty packed with conference activities and adoptive mom hangouts!

The conference itself was great. We began Friday morning with worship, and one moment struck me and has stayed with me. There’s a line in one of the songs we sang – “and darkness tries to hide, and trembles at His voice” that was so humbling to sing in a room filled with adoptive and foster parents – because we have seen the darkness. And I want to believe with my whole heart that the darkness out there in the world today that has come into play in separating our children from their first families and in so many of the realities of their lives is truly trembling at the voice of the living God.

There was also incredible teaching. Kristin Berry is a phenomenal story-teller and encourager. Cindy Lee of the Halo Project OKC is an amazing resource for casting vision for healing from trauma and for practical guidance in how to parent kids from hard places – I’ve appreciated what she has to say every time I’ve heard her speak. I loved getting to hear from Kia Barton, now an adult adoptee, about her experience growing up as a black child with white parents. This was the first time I’d heard Paris Goodyear-Brown speak, and I was highly impressed with her deep understanding of the adversity that children who have experienced trauma can face and how to walk with them through their challenges. I was so encouraged by these reminders of how I can walk alongside my children and love them well.

In addition to the actual content of the conference, it was so encouraging to be surrounded by a group of people who get it. Wanting to be intentional about facilitating those connections and that sense of connection, in our welcome packets, the conference organizers even handed out “me too” signs that we could raise when what other people were sharing resonated with our stories.

Within this context, there was so much background that didn’t need to be explained, so many premises that didn’t need to be established. These people understand the difference between chronological age, developmental age, and family age. They understand the desire to seek for our children racial mirrors and connections to their birth cultures. They understand the tension inherent in telling our own stories and advocating for adoption while keeping our children’s stories private. They have lived the long-term realities of the lasting effects of food insecurity. They grapple with the fight for ethics in adoption. They understand what dysregulation is. They understand sensory needs. They have fought for attachment, both for their children to feel bonded to them and for them to feel bonded to their children. They don’t blink at stories of 3 hour rages; or piles of junk food wrappers found under beds; or seemingly compulsive lying, cheating, and stealing; or alternative high school placements; or police involvement with families. They understand complex developmental trauma and how it can manifest and what it looks like to parent children who have lived through that.

There is such encouragement from being surrounded by people who are walking this journey of adoption and foster parenting, too. One of the biggest blessings of the conference, for me, was getting to spend the weekend with these ladies. Thank you, Kathy, Marisa, Diane, and Becky for hanging out with me!

I actually came home feeling a bit sick, but I enjoyed the opportunity to spend some time snuggling my babies.

We’ve had a lot of dysregulation since my return, and that has been challenging, but I find myself more patient and better equipped with strategies to walk through all of that with my kiddos. It was definitely a great conference and a great trip overall. Would you join me next year?!

Cultivating a Love of Reading

One reason we chose to homeschool, and one reason we ultimately chose to purchase most of our curriculum through Sonlight, is that one of my hopes for my children is that they learn to love reading. Part of that is because I recognize its benefits – reading fiction can help develop empathy. It can help you cultivate a deeper spiritual life. But another huge part of it is that I love to read, and I love to connect with and share passions with my kiddos, and I’ve always hoped we’d be able to read and talk about books together.

Within the last year, I’ve been overjoyed to see my big girls developing an increasing love of reading. Madeleine CaiQun can often be found curled up on the couch with her nose in a book, and especially within the last week or so, I’ve started to see Miranda reading more and more on her own, too.

I actually feel myself rebelling and turning into more of an “unschooler” than I ever thought I would be as I realize how ridiculous it would be to pull my child away from reading a book she’s loving in order to insist that she read the exact chapter from the exact book our curriculum has assigned for the day. I’m definitely not actually turning into an unschooler (a perfectionist and a rule follower and a checklist-lover to my core, there’s no way I could actually “unschool”) – but if Miranda wants to spend 3 hours reading The Wizard of Oz, I’m certainly not going to pull her away from that! In fact, I may need to start stocking up more on these early chapter books that my girls can tackle on their own and really enjoy! Readers, what are your favorite third and fourth grade reading level books?

One of my goals for my littles for this school year has been to read more to them, and though they sometimes insist that they’re going to read their books “by myself!” they come running (or scooting) over any time I sit down on the couch and start reading one of their books out loud 🙂

And I absolutely treasure my moments of quiet with the big girls at bedtime – this is one of my favorite times of the day. We save our read-alouds to do together then, and we snuggle together in my bed, and I read to them.

I definitely have moments in parenting of feeling like nothing is going right, and I can do none of the things well, but days when I see my kiddos reading and when I get to read with them are an encouragement to my soul.

Another Good Parenting Tool: The Hoot Owl Hoot Game

In my family of origin, we grew up playing games. As the oldest child, I learned games like Monopoly and Risk at an early age – primarily, I always thought, so my dad would have someone with whom to play! I loved playing games, too, though. My brother Danny and I played quite a bit on our own, and we’d play games as a family. I have fond memories of spending hours fighting to conquer the world in Risk. We played card games, too, especially a game called Sheepshead, which is played primarily among the German-American population of Wisconsin. It’s rather cutthroat and even includes insults specific to its play. And yet game-playing, and specifically that game, were so integral to my experience of time with my family that when Matt and I started dating, it never even occurred to me that he might not learn the game.

And now my children are getting to the age at which we can play games together! That is glorious – except that they (some in particular) are fairly bad winners and very bad losers. That severely limits the games we want to play with them and the times at which we are up for playing games.

However, we recently came across a game that has been such a blessing for our family! Matt’s birthday was last week, and (among other things) we got him the game Hoot Owl Hoot for us to play as a family. It’s a cooperative game, so all players work together to accomplish their goal (getting all of the owls back to the nest) before the time runs out (when the sun rises).

We’ve played it with all of our kids, and they ALL love it!

Atticus will sit with me and “be on my team.” FangFang doesn’t entirely understand the strategy of it, but she loves choosing which color to play and moving the pieces around the board and just generally being a part of it all with her big sisters. Miranda and Madeleine CaiQun are old enough to understand and even be part of formulating a strategy to try to work together and win the game.

When we lose, it’s not such a heavy blow, because we all lose together. And when we win, we all get to be thrilled together!

Obviously our kids do need to learn to win well and lose well – but this game also reinforces the idea that we, as a family, are in this life together – we’re a team. And that lesson is of primary importance for us. Collaborative games are a safe way to ease into experiencing the ups and downs of winning and losing (both in life and in games) while knowing that your family is with you.

We’ve played this game over and over again since we got it, and it has been a great, fun, connecting tool for us with all of our kiddos! If you have young kids (ours are currently ages 2-7), I’d absolutely recommend it!

What do you think about adopting out of birth order? What about virtual twinning?

For those of you not part of the adoption community, these may seem like strange questions. But as someone who has been a part of the adoption community for 6+ years, of which about 4.5 have been as an adoptive parent, I have heard these questions asked, in one form or another, multiple times a week for years. And as an adoptive parent who has both adopted out of birth order and virtually twinned children, I feel qualified to be a voice speaking to both questions. Obviously specific counsel varies depending on individual situations, but this post should be taken as a collection of general guidelines.

First, some definitions. Adopting out of birth order is adding a child to your family who will not enter your family as the youngest. Displacing your oldest child is a particular form of adopting out of birth order in which the child who is joining your family will enter as the oldest child. Virtual twinning (also called artificial twinning) is adopting a child where there will be an age difference of less than 9 months between that child and another child in your family.

(from left to right, Atticus (whose birth order we disrupted by bringing home a sister older than he was); FangFang (the sister who is older than he is but joined our family after he did); Madeleine CaiQun (who is only about 4 months younger than our oldest and is thus her virtual twin); and Miranda (our oldest))

Second, I’d make this recommendation to all adopting families, but, in particular, if you are considering adopting out of birth order or virtual twinning, I think this counsel is important – please look for a well-recommended, experienced, wise social worker. A good social worker is worth more than their weight in gold. They’ve seen many, many adoptions. They have a lot of experience from which to draw and a lot of wisdom to offer. They are also, yes, tasked with evaluating whether a family meets the qualifications required to adopt from a certain program and what age(s) and gender(s) of child would be wise for that family to adopt, as well as what special needs that family is prepared to handle. Both when we virtual twinned and when we adopted out of birth order, our social worker was on board with us doing so. She has years of experience working with adoptive families, she’s seen a lot, and she knows our family well. We know she is there to support our family and to help everyone thrive, and we very much value her opinion. If she had not thought it was wise for us to pursue either situation, we would not have pushed her to approve us to do so. She has never thought it would be wise for us to adopt a child older than our oldest and has never approved us to do so – and we agree that to do so would be extremely unwise for us!

Conventional wisdom from social workers and experienced adoptive families has generally been that out of birth order adoptions should be undertaken rarely and with great thoughtfulness, particularly if a family is displacing their oldest child (which is very, very rarely recommended). The same goes for virtual twinning. Adoption is hard. Children who are being adopted have, without exception, experienced trauma, and that trauma is going to manifest itself somehow, and adoptive parents need to be prepared and parent well, often using a more limited range of strategies than those generally considered to be acceptable for parents in our society. Adopting out of birth order or virtual twinning adds additional variables and challenges to an already challenging situation. The immediate challenges may be any or all of the following, plus more:

  • Abuse (physical, sexual, verbal, etc) from a new child, who may have been exposed to absolutely anything in their former environment and now enters a family as not the smallest, weakest person.
  • Attachment difficulties, stemming in particular from 2 major concerns:
    • If there is abuse, it is hard for everyone to bond – the younger child being abused, the parents witnessing their baby being abused, and the new child, who is constantly tempted to lash out at their smaller (or same size) siblings.
    • If you bring in a new child as your youngest child, everyone understands that that child needs to be the “baby” of the family and should be treated as such. Bringing in a child who is not the youngest creates behavioral expectations for that child, that they be as mature as other children in your family and that they make room for babying a (likely regressing, due to the major change and potentially their own lack of understanding) younger child, as well.
  • Complex emotions on the part of children who may feel replaced by an older or similar-age child, moreso than they would by a baby.
  • Competition between similar age and/or similar developmental stage children.

Additionally, displacing an oldest child would set up difficulties in which the former oldest child (likely a child who, based on studies of birth order, likes to be a leader, likes to know what to expect, likes to be in control) is no longer the oldest child, and yet, they may remain the most mature child. The new child may refuse to follow the “lead” of the younger child in learning appropriate family behavior and instead may try to take the lead in promoting unsafe or inappropriate behaviors among all the children in the home. The now younger child may not appreciate having an older sibling who is less mature than they are. This can create tremendous tension. As an added concern, displacing an oldest child means that parents are now parenting a child who is at an age at which they have never parented a child before. It’s hard enough to figure out parenting, let alone adoption parenting, not to mention adoption parenting of a child who is years beyond any other child you have parented before.

As I said, despite all of these additional challenges, we’ve chosen both to virtual twin and to adopt out of birth order. So why did we do it?

With our first adoption, our daughter Miranda was almost 3, and we brought home a 2.5-year-old daughter, Madeleine CaiQun. Although only about 4 months apart in age, the two would be on either side of our school district’s age cut-off date for entering kindergarten, meaning that if we did choose to enroll them in public school, they’d be in different grades, and for social activities based on children’s grades, they’d be in different groups. We felt that would cut down on competition. We also knew that Madeleine CaiQun was significantly behind developmentally, so we figured that the girls wouldn’t really be competing with each other. We’d view Miranda as the older child and Madeleine CaiQun as the younger, and even though their technical birthdays were close together, we’d still create a pretty firm birth order.

(me with my virtual twins, together in China, 2013)

For the most part, that has played out well for us, and I really don’t think we hit most of those initial challenges I mentioned above. However, what I think we under-prepared for were the challenges we are facing now, 4.5 years later, as the girls are preparing to start 1st and 2nd grades, and there are many ways in which there is not such a firm-seeming “birth order.” Based on our experience (and those experiences of other families we know who are a similar length of time into the process), I’d encourage families to consider the following:

  • How will you handle it if your child at home is more advanced than your new child across the board?
  • What happens if the “younger” child or child who joined the family later, actually is better than the “older” child in certain areas? How will the older child feel about having a younger sibling who is more advanced than they are?
  • How will you avoid constant comparison of your children? How will you interact with other adults in your children’s lives, who may have a tendency to compare them? What about other children making comparisons?
  • How will you navigate social situations? What if one child is more social than the other? What if the two enjoy being together but invitations are not always issued to both children? What if the two don’t enjoy being together?
  • How will you navigate extra-curricular activities? The kids do the same activities (convenient, but it’s a lot of time together and can lead to competition)? Different activities (gives kids some space but is a lot less convenient)? What about the social implications of whatever choice you make with regards to those extra-curricular activities?

(my virtual twins together, 2016)

In terms of adopting out of birth order, we avoided some of the challenges by virtue of who our children are. We knew that FangFang, though 14 months older than Atticus, would be significantly smaller than he would be and definitely behind him in terms of gross motor skill development – she wasn’t going to be bullying him. Additionally, because of her needs, we’d have to “baby” her in a lot of ways, often carrying her and assisting her in other ways. Also, Atticus, as a third child, was quite used to the reality that the world did not revolve around him, and because we also had other families and kids in and out of our house frequently (even caring part-time for a friend’s little boy close in age to Atticus), he was used to sharing us with other kids. We also knew that Matt’s flexible schedule would allow him to be helpful with any challenges that did arise once FangFang came home.

Even so, it was a difficult transition for him. I’m not sure it would have been significantly less difficult had we brought home a younger toddler, but the reality is that it was hard on him. There were many instances those first weeks after I arrived home in which either Matt or I had to be fully engaged with Atticus for a period of time while the other cared for the other three kids.

(my two littles with me, soon after I returned home from China with FangFang – if one was sitting with me, the other also had to be there, December 2016)

Again, based on our experience, but also the experiences of others whom we know who have adopted out of birth order, I’d encourage families considering adopting out of birth order to consider these questions:

  • What will you do if your new child attempts to bully your younger child? How will you keep your younger child safe? Are you willing and able to keep your new child with you – as in, within your line of sight – at absolutely all times?
  • How will you facilitate bonding between a new child and the younger child they are bullying, between the new child and any older siblings who don’t appreciate seeing their youngest sibling be a target for this new child, and between you as parents and this new child?
  • How will you give your new child the babying they need to attach to you as parents, while also caring for your other, particularly younger, child(ren)?
  • How will you care for your younger child(ren), who will probably be stressed out by the addition of this newest child, and so will probably be regressing? Can you baby both your new child and your younger child(ren), all at the same time? What resources do you have to do so?
  • If your children are not bonding well and require constant supervision, do you have other people in your life who can provide the intense care that they need? If not, how will your marriage handle not being able to get away for time without kids?
  • Assuming your new child comes home with some special needs, you will likely now need to spend significant time at doctor appointments, in the hospital, at therapy appointments, and/or on the phone coordinating all of these needs, etc.; how will your other children, particularly any younger children, who are less able to understand the reason for all of this time away, handle this? How will you equip them to handle it well?

(the littles playing on “boats” together, July 2017)

Additionally, for anyone considering pursuing an out-of-birth order or virtual twinning adoption, I’d encourage you to be honest as you consider, are you pursuing this child because you truly believe that is what’s best for this child and for your existing family, OR are you pursuing adopting this older, harder-to-place child because then you don’t have to wait as long for a match?

In general, I think it’s good for families to be aware of guidelines that adoption professionals use as “best practices” and that experienced families consider to be wise. As many of us BTDT parents say over and over again in discussions within the adoption community, if you are proceeding with adopting, there are many unknowns. Think about what the worst case scenario is. If you’re not prepared for that, don’t proceed. There are many success stories of families adopting out of birth order and virtual twinning – and, honestly, the people with those stories are more likely to stick around as part of the Facebook groups and the resource lists for people preparing to adopt. But just because someone else’s experience went well does not mean that yours will, and if you can’t handle a harder version of what your potential future reality could be, it would be wise not to proceed.

I’d also recommend checking out this blog post, written by another adoptive mom who has been around for a while, in which she shares some wisdom and links to many other resources for people to read and think about as they consider proceeding with either of these scenarios.

And if you have any questions or want to talk more, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me. You’ll notice that I shared very few details about our specific challenges and adjustments, which is purposeful on my part – I don’t think my children’s challenges should be google-able – but I’m happy to talk with you about your specific situation and offer more info that might be helpful about challenges we’ve faced (or have seen play out for others) in private interactions 🙂

Post-Surgery Update

It’s been a while since I’ve written – too long – and I miss this space. I have more to say and share here, but first I want to start with an overdue update on FangFang’s surgery and recovery. My last post was written the night before surgery. In the morning, we were up and checked out of our hotel and arrived at the hospital by 6:45, our designated check-in time.

Her surgeon actually saw us in the lobby while we were checking in and came over and talked with us. He said he might end up only rodding her right leg – that was the first I’d heard of this plan to potentially leave the left femur alone, and it left me anxious that we’d have to go through this surgery twice in a short span of time, instead of getting the recovery period for both legs over with all at once. There is a reason that we travel to Omaha, though – Dr. Esposito is one of the best (if not the absolute best) pediatric orthopedic surgeons working with children with OI, and we’d have to trust his judgment.

Overall, we were pretty impressed with the team in place in Omaha as we talked with them in preparations for surgery and as they helped FangFang get acclimated.

We had only one unpleasant interaction – one of the pre-op nurses had asked us to get out a favorite blanket or stuffed animal for FangFang that she could take back to the OR with her, so we did that, only to be told by the nurse who was wheeling her back for surgery that she wasn’t really supposed to have her own things with her – but when FangFang protested and I argued that the other nurse had specifically encouraged us to get out her blanket, she was allowed to take it back with her.

Once FangFang went back to the OR, my mom and I ate breakfast (FangFang was NPO in preparation for her surgery, and this girl loves her food – no way were we going to be able to eat in front of her without feeding her!) and then sat in the waiting room and did a bit of work.

I was initially disappointed when the nurse came out to tell me that they’d finished with her right femur and were not going to touch her left, but when Dr. Esposito and Dr. Wallace came to talk with us, they said it was because the rod in her left leg actually looked better than they expected, and they didn’t think they could get it much better right now, so they’d rather not touch it, and hopefully we’d get a couple years out of it. I could live with that!

The before and after pictures are pretty striking. You can see the extreme curve in her femur as it was before surgery (and the way it lights up bright white, indicating that it has broken and healed that way over numerous untreated or poorly treated fractures, which makes my heart ache). And then you can see how much straighter it looks now with the rod placed. Of course, the surgeons had to break her femur in two places in order to straighten it, which is a major cause of the pain she experienced after surgery.

I was allowed to go back to FangFang soon after that, once she started waking up, and she immediately started crying and asked for me to hold her and wanted food. The nurses warned me that giving her too much food and drink too soon would likely upset her tummy, but as a mama of a child who has experienced food insecurity and who senses safety in part through the availability of food, I made the choice to let her eat and drink more than would usually be offered.

Nervous about hurting her, fresh out of surgery and with so many wires attached, I did leave her on the bed and just wrap my arms around her while we were in post-op, but as soon as we were up on the floor, the nurses helped me get her onto my lap, where she settled in much more happily.

And there I was rewarded for my liberality in dispensing apple juice and jello with several instances of projectile vomit! We got ourselves cleaned up, though, and FangFang slept for much of that first afternoon, leaving my lap only when it was absolutely necessary.

We tucked her into bed at night time, but none of us slept all that well – she still had an epidural in for pain control, and with that, they were checking vitals every 2 hours. The next morning we talked with the pain management team about getting rid of the epidural and transitioning to IV and then oral pain meds. They have a good strategy in place, in which they turn off the epidural but leave it in and see how the patient responds, and if they need the epidural meds, they can always turn it back on. FangFang definitely experienced more discomfort without it than with it, but everyone agreed that her pain seemed manageable, and she appreciated not having to be hooked up to so many wires. She, again, spent most of the day sitting on my lap. We watched some Daniel Tiger DVDs and played with a doctor kit Matt’s cousin ordered for her from the gift shop.

And in the evening we went for a ride in the wagon, which she loved. She so wanted to get out of that hospital room!

While we were out for our walk, I grabbed a photo of these signs hanging on our door. Everything about the Omaha Children’s Hospital speaks to their expertise in interacting with children with OI. It’s not just that Dr. Esposito is so amazing – though he is – it’s that everyone there is experienced in working with kids with OI and knows how to do so.

As wonderful as the hospital is, we’d really much rather be home. We advocated for a discharge as early as possible, and everyone was on board with us leaving the hospital and heading home Thursday morning, earlier than we’d thought possible, for which we were all thankful!

We were able to keep her pain well managed with just the oral pain meds – honestly, she seemed more disturbed by the pain from removing bandaids than by any pain associated with the femur fractures and surgery itself! – and within a few days of our arrival home, we were able to wean her off of the heavy duty meds, down to just Tylenol and Ibuprofen.

We were all glad to be home and be together. For the first day or two, FangFang didn’t move around much, but this girl wasn’t going to let anything like a post-op femur rodding slow her down for too long – within a couple days of our arrival home, she was scooting around the house just like normal. She hated having the splint on, but she tolerated it, and we’d give her short reprieves for a bath or, once she was three weeks post-op, to let her sleep without it. That wasn’t exactly doctor approved, but she was sleeping horribly with it, and consequently Matt and I were sleeping horribly, and we just hoped we weren’t being horribly foolish!

Our instructions were to keep her non-weight-bearing for 4 weeks and then we could remove the splint and go in for follow-up x-rays with our local orthopedic surgeon, which we did at exactly the 4 week mark. Everything looked good on x-rays, so she was cleared to return to normal activity, for which we are all very thankful!

FangFang is back to crawling again, and she and I have been going to aqua therapy – physical therapy in the water. Aqua therapy is particularly awesome for kids with OI, because they’re able to work on developing skills without having to support all of their weight to do so. She’s doing great with supporting increasingly more of her weight while standing, and last week we started working on taking some steps and cruising. She’s just starting to get the motions down for that, which means I support most of her weight while she works on it, and my arms were sore after our last session! She is growing and developing and working on gaining those skills, though, which is so exciting to see.

This phase of the journey is a bit more unpredictable. I knew we’d need to get FangFang into PT, I knew we’d work toward getting her to stand and walk, and I knew she’d need her right femur rodded before she got too far along toward those goals – but now that her surgery has happened, it’s impossible to say how quickly she’ll begin to stand and maybe even walk on her own. She is motivated and excited about each new milestone she reaches, and we’ll just have to see what the next months hold for her and for us!