Spring Break Excitement…Or Not

You may be wondering what a family of six that is saving money for a fun summer trip (as well as continuing to rebuild the emergency savings account that was wiped out with the last adoption!) chooses to do for spring break. It turns out…not much. Well, that’s not exactly true. We’ve been doing a lot – it’s just that none of it is particularly exciting.

In fact, with the exception of a blissful 36 hours in which everyone in our home was fever-free, we have had at least one sick child every day for the last 11 days. We’ve had runny noses, coughs, and fevers, and yesterday we added a confirmed ear infection to the litany of afflictions. The downside of having a lot of children is that illnesses can slowly make their way through them, one at a time, rendering at least portions of the family home-bound for long periods of time. We’re thankful it’s not worse, but this is getting pretty old!

In a way, it’s been nice that the weather has been so yucky – 40s, maybe 50, cloudy, rainy, and muddy. At least we haven’t felt like we’re missing out on much! Even though this week is Matt’s spring break, the kids and I are plugging away at school. We may as well do school now, when weather is yucky and everyone feels bad, so we have more time to enjoy the fun, warm, sunny days when they arrive.

dinner table school

We also have a number of medical needs in our family, and poor Matt is at my mercy this week, as I’ve scheduled as many appointments and meetings as possible to try to avoid having to drag all 4 children to everything. So far we’ve tackled an eye doctor appointment for one child, a meeting about access to our church’s children’s programs for one of our kids, an unexpected pediatrician appointment to confirm the ear infection, a cardiology appointment for Matt, and we tried to do an endocrinology appointment for two of our kids…but, for the first time (which actually might be impressive, given the number of appointments we have? or maybe it’s still just depressing) I had the day wrong, and they told us our appointment is actually tomorrow. Sigh. Tonight I’ll meet with another adoptive mom to talk some adoption stuff, and tomorrow we’ll do the actual endocrinology appointment and hit a physical therapy appointment. It’s all stuff that needs to be done…but it’s not exactly Disneyworld 😉

I am thankful that we live in an era in which medical care is readily available. I’m thankful for our high quality health insurance that allows us to pursue that care without worry. It has not escaped my notice that not everyone has that right. My child who woke up with an ear infection doesn’t have to suffer longer than necessary. And since we need to take care of all of these specialist appointments, it is so nice to be able to do it during a week when Matt is around. This is part of what life with a medically complex child and others affected by various medical issues is all about. We knock out the appointments, do some school around them all, and try to get in some bits of family fun, as well <3

I hope your spring break is more exciting than ours – but also that if you are a family who has weeks like this, filled with a never-ending stream of appointments, that you can see the grace in the ability to do that, too.

This Is Us, Traumaversaries, and the Long View

February is a tough month around here. We’re coming up on the second anniversary of an incredibly traumatic week in our family’s life.

That week began with an early Sunday morning phone call from Matt’s mom telling us that his sister Denya had passed away completely unexpectedly. After we got the call, we went to church. I don’t know why we went to church. Trauma responses are not rational.

And 3 short days later, I called 9-1-1 from an upstate New York hotel room as our kids and I witnessed Matt suffer cardiac arrest. We spent the next week in the hospital (here you can read parts two, three, four, and five if you hadn’t already), leaving our kids – with no advance preparation – in the care of grandparents and aunts and uncles for the week. After discharge we spent another week at Matt’s mom’s house before a friend flew out to help us drive home to Missouri, where we began our journey toward recovery and health.

As we have approached these anniversaries, I’ve been feeling it. It’s a true traumaversary for me – an anniversary of trauma that affects you so deeply that your body itself remembers it. I’m more emotional. I fought back tears as a woman at the grocery store accused me of taking her spot in line. I’m more on edge with my kids. I’m more easily irritated with Matt. The strain of other normal interpersonal interactions feels greater.

And into this context of our lives steps the tv show This Is Us. Featuring a white family that adopts a black child, it is quite popular among my adoptive mom friends, and Matt and I began watching it last year. It is, quite simply, phenomenal. Of course, it resonates with us in particular because of the nature of our family and its similarities to the tv show family. Matt and I have adopted two of our children trans-racially, and we have a number of children all close in age to one another. But it goes beyond that – the show explores family dynamics, personal choices, and how we all live in a way that resonates with viewers deeply.

The show hops between different time periods in the family’s life, and we’ve known since season one that Jack, the father in the family, was going to die while the children were in high school. Season two has focused on the lead up to his death and its effects on each of the children in their now-adult lives. And a week and a half ago, he died. In fact, he suffered a cardiac arrest (after inhaling too much smoke in a house fire). When told, his wife’s immediate response was to take a bite of the candy bar she was holding (trauma responses are not rational). And then she had to go and tell their children.

I sobbed.

I sobbed through the entire episode, and I sobbed through the next one, in which they plan and attend his funeral, scatter his ashes, and begin to figure out life without Jack.

It all hit pretty close to home. I’ve envisioned all of those scenarios. My brother-in-law and nieces lived them out two years ago – and are still living them out today. Things could have gone very differently for us on that night two years ago. And now we live on borrowed time. Matt’s health is generally good now, and we hope for many more years together. Of course, only God knows the number of days any of us have left, but we know that ours may be fewer than most, and we think about what that may mean for us.

And in This Is Us, we see what it means for every character. Their experience with trauma affects them forever. It colors their lives. It does not need to define their entire lives, but it never goes away.

I remember sharing with a friend, before we brought Madeleine CaiQun home from China, that we’d need to parent her differently than we might parent a biological child because of her experiences with trauma in the first few years of her life. This friend asked, “So how long will it take before she gets beyond that and you can just treat her like normal?”

The answer? Never.

And this is the long view. We never “get over” our experiences with trauma. We move through them. We learn to live with them. We learn how they affect us. We learn how we can manage their effects. We learn what truths speak to us when the effects of our trauma rear their ugly heads. We learn what sort of supports we need.

I am seeing that I need to dial back my expectations for myself, for Matt, and for our kids during this month. I need to watch for my desire for control and counteract it by working to hold all things loosely. I need to practice loving well, even when I feel like retreating.

And I need to take these insights and apply them to the ways in which I parent my kids. My first three kiddos share my traumaversary. My two kiddos from China have experienced a number of huge traumas in their lives. All of these experiences shape who they are, how they respond to stress, and how they live their lives. I can recognize that even I, as an adult, am not fully in control of my emotions and the ways in which I respond to the additional stress I feel at these sensitive times. How much more difficult it must be for them, as kids, to deal with hard stuff! I can choose to recognize that and parent out of compassion and kindness, rather than rigidity and selfishness.

Watching the Olympic figure skating competition last night and seeing Patrick Chan skate to “Hallelujah,” I was reminded of the truth and beauty in the words:

And love is not a victory march

It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

I needed that reminder heading into this week.

A New Extra-Curricular Activity – We’re Learning Mandarin!

For a few weeks now, our Friday afternoons have brought us a new extra-curricular activity, one about which I could not be more excited – the 3 girls and I have started learning Mandarin! One of Matt’s students, who is from China and has experience teaching Mandarin to children, asked me if I would be interested in our kids learning the language, and I responded with an enthusiastic YES!

We have tried, at times, to learn some more Mandarin, but we hadn’t found an option that was (1) a good fit for our family and (2) affordable. And now – enter Jenny, who is willing to come to our house and enter into our craziness and teach us!

While Matt and I were incredibly excited about the opportunity for some of us to start learning this language spoken in the country of birth of two of our daughters, not everyone was thrilled initially. One of the kiddos we’ve adopted is very ambivalent about all things China – and that’s absolutely fine with us. She has every right to those feelings. But we explained to her that part of our job as parents is to keep doors open for her. Someday she might want to return to China for an extended visit or even to live there. It’s possible – though improbable – that she could someday find members of her birth family still living in China. Someday she might want to be more involved in the Chinese American community here in the States. She is not now and might never be interested in any of those things – but she might change her mind as she gets older. And if she does change her mind, having some Mandarin will be an asset for her. Learning now keeps doors open for her for her future. We will never push her through any of those doors. Her life is hers to live, and those decisions are hers to make. But our job is to make sure the doors stay open, so she has the tools to make those decisions when the time comes. And now that we have gotten a few weeks into our language learning and she has started to become more comfortable with Jenny, she is warming up to the idea.

And Atticus…well, he remains uninterested and unfocused. Mostly we just set him up with something else to do while the rest of us learn 🙂 But he does deign to join us for the fun art projects Jenny brings for us to work on!

We are so thankful for this opportunity! Part of that is just getting to know Jenny more. I’m always so thankful for Chinese and Chinese American people who are willing to invest in my Chinese American daughters. As their mother, I can do a lot for them, but I will never be able to pass on to them my own firsthand accounts of living life as an Asian woman in America. It’s so special for me when they are able to have relationships with other people who can offer them something I cannot! That includes far more than language, though of course it includes language, as well.

Madeleine CaiQun and FangFang don’t really remember much Mandarin – before we started our lessons with Jenny, they knew only words that I also knew (which were very specific to toddler adoption – things like “milk” and “bed”). Their pronunciation, even now, though, is pretty good, which is so nice for them, because, honestly, at least for me, it is hard! I really have to think about the tones, in particular, because they are such an integral part of speaking Mandarin that really is not analogous to anything in English. But the current star of our little Mandarin-learning group? It’s actually Miranda! She is motivated to learn and enjoys success, and Jenny says she speaks like a native Mandarin speaker. Jenny has offered to give her extra lessons after our group times, and she eats up that extra attention! She’s already learning a lot.

And the rest of us are learning, too 🙂 This past week we started working on our first Mandarin dialogue, which the girls and I are practicing in preparation for this week’s lesson! Jenny is great at working with us where we’re at. I told her we were practicing during the week, but that was both a blessing and a curse, because we all remembered more when we practiced, but practicing meant that I had to lead our lessons, so instead of hearing a native Mandarin speaker, the kids hear my American accent! After hearing that, she made audio recordings of herself for us to use this week in our practicing 😉

I’m so thankful for this opportunity. Not only does it offer our whole family an opportunity to build a greater connection to Madeleine CaiQun’s and FangFang’s birth country and its culture, but it opens up more opportunities for all of us in general. There may be more countries that use English as an official language, but China’s population is over 1.3 billion people, and learning a language spoken by that many of our world’s people can only serve us well. I know it’s so great for kids to learn another language, and Mandarin has always been what I’ve wanted our kids to learn as part of their schooling, and I’m so, so thankful that they now have the opportunity to do that. Plus it’s another opportunity for learning for me – a challenge, for sure, but it’s one worth tackling!

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!

Looking Back: Happy Birthday to FangFang!

I’ve gotten a bit behind on my blogging about family events, but some are too important not to come back and address 🙂 At the end of September, we celebrated FangFang’s 4th birthday! It was her first birthday home with us, and after seeing her sisters celebrate their birthdays, she was quite excited to have her own celebration!

Of course, for a 4-year-old, the gifts were a big draw 😉 One of her favorites was a book we got for her called Three Names of Me. FangFang loves all things China, and she was captivated by this opportunity to have a book that tells a story similar to her own, of a girl adopted from China.

In addition to being drawn in by gifts, the promise of getting to choose her favorite meal and dessert was quite exciting for FangFang! She requested a pink cake with pink frosting, and we were happy to oblige.

She wanted “bear candles,” and Matt bought some gummy bears…and then impaled them on the candles(!) to create “bear candles.” I thought it was a little bit creepy, but FangFang approved 🙂

She is simply delighted to have attention and to receive love from friends and family, and she very much enjoyed everything about her day. Celebrating it made me think back to last year, when she was still in China, and the poor child broke her arm on her birthday, but still, her joy shone through!

And she remains very much that same child today – so full of joy in any and every circumstance – but most especially when given attention and treats 😉 It’s amazing to me how much changes and how much stays the same in the space of a year. In the space of a year, this girl had switched primary languages, transitioned from her foster home to her family, and moved from one country to another. Her life looked so different, and yet you can see, in her photos, her shining through. To me it is a testament to the quality of the foster home where she lived that her personality and joy were so evident there, and we’re glad she has brought them into our home and family, as well.

It is a blessing to have her home and part of our family, and we were so glad to be able to celebrate her birthday with her!