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.

Book to be Released Next Week: Confessions of an Adoptive Parent

When I posted this photo on Instagram and Facebook, a number of my friends who are foster or adoptive parents (or preparing to be either of those!) commented that they were interested in what the book was all about.

I heard both Mike and Kristin Berry speak back in October at the Refresh Chicago 2017 Conference and was encouraged by their words and by the conference in general, so when they announced that this book was coming out this year, I was honored to be invited to be part of its launch team (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book and the pre-order bonus materials in exchange for my participation in the launch team.) 

The book has a very similar feel to the Refresh Conference – one of its primary aims is to make sure that foster and adoptive parents understand that they are not alone. Mike tells a number of stories from his own experience as a foster and adoptive parent (while still keeping many details of his children’s stories private), which help to communicate that no matter what a family is experiencing, their struggles are not unique. The Berry family has parented children who behaved in unsafe ways with other children, who became pregnant earlier than planned, who have had to be placed in residential treatment facilities for periods of time, whose experiences of trauma directly play into their behavior, and who are not always respectful, kind, mature individuals. No matter what struggle an adoptive or foster parent is walking through, this book will offer reassurance that they are not the only ones.

It’s also very readable – I carried it with me and read it all over the place 🙂

reading while waiting for Miranda’s swim meet to start!

Some of what I found most helpful from the book were the reminders to press on. Berry writes, “So now we have a choice. We can shake our fists at the heavens and say, ‘This wasn’t part of the deal,’ or we can choose to move forward, love our children through the trials, work to understand trauma, and live to the best of our ability in this new normal” (p. 76-77). Probably all of us parents have had moments of wondering whether this life was really what we signed up for, but I appreciated the encouragement to persevere through the hard times. Berry says, “I’ve found that when I stop dwelling on what I wish would have been, and accept what actually is, I find hope quicker” (p. 77).

Reminding us all that there is hope, no matter what, is another of the main points of this book. Part of that is practical encouragement – Berry tells multiple stories of kids and young adults who were making bad choices but whose paths eventually changed, and he offers the reminder that we are all in process, saying, “I didn’t come from a traumatic situation the way some of my kids did, but I still had to journey to where I am today. Twenty years ago I wasn’t able to do what I do today” (p. 187). And another part of this reminder that hope exists is spiritual. Berry writes, “That’s where I find hope – not in the wreckage of this journey, but in the fact that Jesus has willingly entered into our darkest moments and fights with us and for us in the middle of it” (p. 123). And he says, “You and I need to trust the God who created the universe and gave us life, confident that He holds our broken kids in His mighty hands” (p. 188).

Our children are younger, and we haven’t had all of the experiences that the Berry family has. However, we have had our own struggles as parents, and we do see the effects of trauma in our kids’ lives, and not everyone around us understands why we make the choices we do for our family. It’s encouraging to know that there are others out there who do understand this adoption parenting journey. And I appreciated the reminders to have hope and persevere in loving well, even in the midst of hard situations with our kiddos.

If you’re looking for some encouragement in these areas, I’d absolutely recommend the book! And if you pre-order in the next few days, there are some pretty extensive pre-order bonuses, which you can check out here!

I’m Interested in Adopting; Where Should I Start?

Over the years since we started pursuing adoption, we’ve gotten increasingly more questions about our journey, our family, and adoption in general. Frequently those questions are from people who are interested in considering pursuing adoption themselves, and they’d like to know where to start.

There are so many different avenues – adoption (or purely fostering) through the foster care system, domestic private adoption, and international adoption. And within each of those systems, there are countless other decisions to be made. If adopting internationally, from which country to pursue adopting? If domestic or internationally, which agency to use? Regardless of which path is chosen, to what age range and gender to be open? And to what special needs to be open? It can be overwhelming even to know where to start.

My initial suggestions may seem indirect, but for several reasons I think they truly are the best place to start. There are two places I’d recommend that anyone considering adoption start:

(1) First, research adoption parenting. All adoption is borne out of trauma and loss. For that reason, it is absolutely essential that children who join their families via adoption be parented in light of that reality. Of the whole wide range of parenting strategies that may work well for neurotypical children, only a subset consistently works well for children who have joined their families through adoption. The first book I’d recommend reading would be The Connected Child by Karyn Purvis and David Cross. It is the go-to book for understanding how to parent children who have lived through trauma. To be blunt, if you are unwilling move toward parenting in the way the book describes, adoption is not for you, because that is what adopted children need from their adoptive parents. If you are willing to continue to learn more about connected parenting and do your best to parent in whatever way is best for your adopted children, regardless of how different that might be from what your upbringing was or what your instincts might be, then you’ll be in a good place to start pursuing adoption.

(2) Research adoption ethics. Not all adoption programs are created equal. There is fraud. There is trafficking. A “demand” (for instance, for young girls with no special needs, who are, ideally, white) can lead to motivation to “create” a supply. I often recommend that people start out with a series of Jen Hatmaker’s blog posts to begin to learn about ethics in adoption:  Adoption Ethics Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. It’s best to research ethics at the beginning. Learn what the red flags are, learn what the potential issues are with any programs you may be considering, learn more about what questions to ask. It’s so important to do this before you have an idea in your head of what your future family is going to look like and most definitely before you have an adorable photo of an absolutely precious child, whom you want to scoop up into your arms and bring home forever. We as adoptive parents are responsible for encouraging ethical behavior by all the actors in the adoption world, and to do that, we have to understand what is happening in the adoption world.

Only after you have done some research into parenting children who join their families through adoption and into adoption ethics would I recommend that you start researching adoption programs.

Some of the best general resources can be found at Rainbow Kids and Creating a Family. In particular, this chart at Creating a Family may be helpful in comparing different types of adoption. Once you start making some choices about the specific roads you want to walk in your adoption journey, there are many more resources out there, but for broadly applicable, initial information, those are two good websites with which to start! Please also feel free to reach out to me, and I’m happy to talk more any time 🙂

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?!

Saturday – A Hotel Switch, A Medical Exam, and Settling In

I was up early Saturday morning, getting dressed and ready to go for the medical exam and getting our suitcases fully re-packed. We’d decided that Danny would take a taxi over to the China Hotel, along with a couple suitcases, to see if we’d be able to get adjoining rooms. If we couldn’t get nearby rooms, I wasn’t sure that would really be a better situation for us, and we’d rather know that earlier in the day. Plus, assuming it worked, then we’d be down a couple suitcases for our large group cross-town transfer. There is a significant downside to not having a real texting or calling plan for our time in China – that we can’t communicate with each other when we don’t have access to wifi. We decided that the best option would be for Danny to make that trip and then come back and for him and Sharon and Madeleine CaiQun to get us checked out of the Pengman Apartments and get our stuff over to the lobby of the Garden across the alley. I’d do the medical exam with FangFang, and if I got back before 11:00, I’d head back to our apartment, but if it was after 11:00, I should just stay at the Garden until they arrived. Danny and I walked over to the Garden at 9:00, and FangFang and I headed to the medical exam required in order to obtain FangFang’s visa for entry into the United States.

This medical exam is mostly a formality. FangFang’s height and weight and head circumference are measured, and her vision and hearing are tested in a very nominal way (does she turn her head when a toy is squeaked off to the side?).

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A doctor does a physical exam and looks over her file and makes some notes. The most important test is really the TB test, as a child cannot gain entrance to the United States without treatment if they have a positive TB test. And this is the one about which I was most concerned – generally parents are not allowed into the room with their children for this blood test, and the doctors there are not very experienced in working with children who have osteogenesis imperfecta. Standard medical protocol is not always appropriate for children with OI. For instance, the force of a blood pressure cuff can sometimes cause a humerus fracture. I certainly won’t be able to prevent every fracture, but in the past, parents adopting kids with OI have been allowed into the room for that TB test, so they can hold their kids instead of the medical workers holding them, and I was hoping they’d allow that in our case, too, and thankfully they did.

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My goal was to get through the exam without a fracture, and we were successful!

FangFang also tucked into me as I was holding her for the first time! In addition to seeing many, many other adoptive families (a number of whom I had already connected with online), we saw the one other family who had been in Nanning with us last week. FangFang kept pointing at them, so we walked over to say hi, but then she seemed a bit intimidated by them, and she tucked her head into my shoulder as we were standing there talking with them! We’re making progress 🙂 Those few moments did this mama’s heart good.

After FangFang had completed all the stations of the medical exam, Elsie helped me to organize my paperwork for our consulate appointment, and soon after, we headed back to the Garden, where I planned to meet Danny and Sharon and Mei Mei and find out what they’d determined the best option would be for our lodgings for the rest of the week. We actually saw them right as we were getting out of the little bus, and they said the China Hotel was able to give us adjoining rooms, and the Pengman Apartments had let us check out with no penalty! Elsie actually flagged down the bus driver for us, and he gave us (and the rest of our stuff) all a ride over to our new hotel – so helpful!

When we were on the bus, Daniel and Sharon told me about his adventures of the morning. Apparently right after his taxi had pulled out onto the road, leaving the Garden, that morning, they’d gotten into a car accident with another car! Car accidents in China have always been a bit of a fear of mine, as there aren’t usually seatbelts in the cars here. No one was injured, and the drivers pulled off to the side of the road to argue about their relative responsibilities. Danny got out and took our suitcases and hailed a new taxi and proceeded on his way!

Thankfully our group trip over to the new hotel was a bit less eventful 🙂 We got checked in, and as we were finishing up, we actually ran into a friend of mine and her family, here adopting two more kiddos. One of the added benefits of being at the China Hotel is that there are adoptive families everywhere, so it’s easy to connect with others and encourage each other and be encouraged.

It was afternoon by the time we got checked in and settled, so we played for just a bit and then ate a late lunch at one of the restaurants in our hotel.

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Then we found some of the yogurt-milk FangFang loves at the 7-11 near the hotel, and I put her down for a nap.

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Madeleine CaiQun took a long bath, and the rest of us relaxed and unpacked some. By the time FangFang woke up, it was late enough we weren’t sure about venturing out to a place we’d never been around the hotel, so we just ate at the Chinese restaurant in the hotel again and then played for a while before bed.

Even though we technically have less space here, the atmosphere is so much more relaxed and so much easier. We’re so glad we made the switch. We feel a lot more comfortable here! And that little bit of extra comfort definitely lowers my stress level and makes everything else feel more manageable.