Thursday – Visit to Beihai

On Thursday we left the hotel early to head to Beihai, the city in which the orphanage at which FangFang lived is located and which is likely the city nearest to which her birth parents live. This trip to her city was somewhat emotional for me in and of itself – knowing that I’m probably closer to her first mom than I ever have been before and will be for quite a while. I wonder who she is and what her life is like, I wonder how our daughter will think and feel about her in the future and if we’ll ever have an opportunity to meet. I hope to honor her as I care for FangFang.

I dressed the girls in their matching shirts, and it seemed to help Madeleine CaiQun feel more sisterly toward FangFang – we’ve found that matching clothes are a good tool for attachment-building between siblings.

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Glenn picked us up at our hotel, and we boarded a bullet train to Beihai. We went to the orphanage first. Different provinces have such different rules – when we adopted Madeleine CaiQun, we were allowed into the orphanage, allowed to take photos of the room and the crib in which she slept and the room in which she played, and allowed to take photos of other children in general and specifically those who had families coming for them who had asked us to take photos. The Beihai Social Welfare Institute (SWI) considers that an invasion of privacy of the children living there. Glenn said that this specific caretaker with whom he was communicating about our visit is pretty laid back, and that’s the reason we were allowed inside the compound at all. We were allowed to take photos of the outside of the buildings and of the courtyard, and we were allowed into the lobby of the orphanage itself. We never saw any other children, and we were not allowed to go into any rooms beyond the lobby. It’s less information than I’d like to have for FangFang as she grows up, but I completely respect the perspective of the orphanage, and actually, it’s one with which I agree in principle.

This blue and yellow building was built about 5 years ago and is now where all the children live.
This blue and yellow building was built about 5 years ago and is now where all the children live.

So many of the nannies came out and said hi to FangFang and seemed excited to see her. There were only 5 children adopted from Beihai this year, so it is not a frequent occurrence to have a child leave through adoption. They said there were about 80 children living there, all with special needs. I was impressed with and thankful for the number of staff members involved in caring for the children.

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These are the people on staff at the orphanage.
These are the people on staff at the orphanage.

I had been pretty concerned about how FangFang would react to being back at the orphanage. It wasn’t the most recent place she’s called home, but it was her home for a time, and we’d be seeing people she knew and seeing the people who brought her to us earlier in the week. She happily went to each nanny and the nurse who wanted to hold her, and she told the main nanny that she missed her nannies. When asked what she thought of her new mama, she replied, “so so.”

I don’t think the orphanage visit itself changed much about how FangFang is interacting with us. She seems, more and more each day, to be preferring Sharon and sometimes Daniel, too, to me. Mostly she’s not thrilled with me. She doesn’t outright reject me, but she doesn’t really seem interested in bonding with me, either. If I’m engaging with her, she’ll play with me, but in a situation like riding on a train, in which we’re all together and she needs to be with someone, she wants to be with Sharon.

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I messaged with a friend of mine, a much more experienced and knowledgeable adoptive mama than I am, on Wednesday night – sidenote to any of my prospective adoptive parent readers out there – the wisdom of BTDT experienced adoptive parents is gold. Before you travel, one of the most important things you should do is make sure you have the names of a few experienced parents you can text or message or reach out to in some fashion while in country. I’ve been here before, I’ve done this before, but every kid is different, every adoption is different, and adoption travel is always emotional. You’re more likely than not to need those resources. I’ve talked with multiple BTDT adoptive mamas this past week and have been so encouraged by their words. Anyway, my friend encouraged me to relax about it, not to force things, but to focus on pursuing overall felt safety – obviously pursue FangFang, but if she feels safe with Sharon, great; if she feels safe in the stroller, great. We’ll have plenty of time to build our relationship. I’ve been trying to hold onto that wisdom.

After our time at the orphanage, we visited FangFang’s finding spot. It’s not generally legal to place one’s child for adoption in China, so children available for adoption are technically “found” somewhere. We know anecdotally that paperwork does not always match reality, but we don’t know for sure what is true in either of our daughters’ cases. We made the visit and took the photos.¬†My personal feeling is that the specifics of this part of FangFang’s story are private, for her and her alone to share if and when she desires to do so.

After that visit we went out to lunch at a local restaurant. Usually we can find a place with pictures and/or brief English translations of the names of the dishes, but this time we had Glenn with us, so he ordered for us off of the totally-Chinese menu. FangFang was thrilled that we ordered a yogurt-milk drink that Glenn suggested for her – apparently that, not standard milk, is what she prefers drinking. She also announced to him that she thought diapers were itchy and she preferred using the toilet! I was shocked, as no one had ever mentioned potty training her. I took her into the squatty potty there, but I quickly realized that in order to hold her up above the potty, I was going to have to grab and hold her up by the legs, putting her at major risk of a femur fracture, and as I have no desire for her leg to break in a Chinese bathroom, we called off that one very quickly, much to her dismay. I asked her foster home when we got back to the hotel, and they replied that no, they had not begun potty training with her! Perhaps that will be something we’ll try once we’re home, but I’m not about to try to potty train a not-walking, Mandarin-speaking child while we’re in China ūüėČ

After lunch we had a little bit of time before our train back to Nanning, so we drove around Beihai a bit, and then Glenn took us to an old, historic street, now a popular tourist destination, and we walked up and down it until it was time to go. Madeleine CaiQun was not a fan of the walking…or of several other things that day…which was not much fun for anyone, but we made it through.

Beihai is a coastal town, and we drove by TONS of these boats tied up - it's not clear how anyone actually gets their boats out of this area...
Beihai is a coastal town, and we drove by TONS of these boats tied up – it’s not clear how anyone actually gets their boats out of this area…

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It was pretty late by the time we got back to Nanning, so we just grabbed dinner at a restaurant in the mall attached to the hotel. Then it was back to the hotel to get the kiddos in bed and begin packing up for our trip to Guangzhou. We were all exhausted. Once everyone else was in bed, I did a little bit of packing, but I really just needed to get some sleep, so I fell into bed around 11:00.

Wednesday in Nanning – A Low-Key Day

Today was to be a low-key day, and for the most part, that’s what it was. Madeleine CaiQun and I were actually up pretty early – me because FangFang woke up and was crying for help getting her blankets and pillow rearranged, and then I was coughing and couldn’t get back to sleep, and Mei Mei because she had a bad dream. Once everyone was awake, we went downstairs to enjoy the hotel breakfast buffet. FangFang is always a little bit sad – though less so each time – when she wakes up, so she was not thrilled at waking up in and of itself. And she LOVES being in her stroller and often requests it upon waking – I think, honestly, because she’s not comfortable with intimacy with me yet and prefers sitting in the stroller to allowing me to hold her – so she was not thrilled that I wouldn’t let her stay in the stroller as we left the room to go to breakfast. As an adoptive mama who knows that one pathway to children’s hearts – particularly children who have spent any time in institutional care – is through their stomachs, I offered her a chocolate donut ūüôā

We met Glenn around 10 and headed over to a park near our hotel. This park actually had a playground – not typical for the parks in China that I’ve seen – and Mei Mei was thankful!

ChenFang insisted that she wanted to go on a swing, too, but she was pretty obviously surprised by what it felt like and was ready to be done and get back into her stroller after a minute or so!

Mostly we walked around and enjoyed the scenery and talked with Glenn.

Madeleine CaiQun has not really enjoyed the walking involved in this trip, and she is often requesting to be worn in the Tula. Glenn tells us that in China, six-year-olds would never be carried like that, because they can walk. However, she is experiencing some jealousy and a bit of regression, and while we’re not going to cater to her every whim, I’m okay with her wanting to be worn some of the time.

Our breakfast had been large, so we just snacked in the room for lunch – instant oatmeal, granola bars, trail mix, and some of the odd flavored Pringles chips that you find only in China (cucumber flavor was alright; Mexican Tomato Chicken flavor was completely disgusting to everyone except FangFang). And then we went to Dairy Queen ūüôā It was a bit of a challenge ordering because of the different menus (and our not reading or speaking Mandarin), but we all managed to get something – I got a Mango Jelly blizzard!

FangFang is definitely stepping up her attempts to reject me and bond with Sharon. She cried for about 5 minutes straight at Dairy Queen because I wouldn’t let her sit next to Sharon and let Sharon feed her – until I finally got a bite of ice cream into her mouth, and she was willing to sacrifice her desire for Sharon in favor of her desire for more ice cream ūüôā

I feel like I’m making it up as I go in terms of how to live out the specifics of encouraging FangFang to form her primary attachment with me while we’re in country with Danny and Sharon. When both parents travel and one is rejected in favor of the other, it can be really hard emotionally, but it’s pretty straightforward practically – there’s a pretty standard course of action to take in that scenario. However, when you’re traveling as one parent with two non-parents, it’s not quite so simple even from a practical standpoint. Everyone agrees that the parent should be the primary person to meet the child’s needs…but everyone also agrees that flexibility is key while in China, and sometimes “ideal in a perfect world” is not the same as “would actually work well in this situation right now.” For the moment, I’m meeting all of FangFang’s basic needs – I change her diapers, I get her dressed and undressed, and I feed her. I’m also trying to be proactive in engaging her playfully – I tickle her and play peekaboo with her and play with play-doh with her. Today I puckered up my lips to blow a kiss to her, and she leaned in for an actual kiss, which was encouraging, and we’ve been blowing kisses back and forth. I always have her sitting next to me at restaurants, and I push the stroller when we’re out and about. Sharon isn’t specifically seeking her out but does respond to her when she interacts playfully, and I think that’s alright. The biggest un-crossable line for me right now is that if I offer her something (i.e. ice cream), I’m not going to let her succeed in turning me down and requesting that same thing from Sharon instead. Treats come from Mom ūüôā It is tricky, though. It seems a little mean to pull her away from someone she’s seeking, but it is for her benefit – in just over a week, Sharon will head home to Washington, D.C., and¬†FangFang will be left with just me, so the beginnings of her most primary relationship need to be with me.

After Dairy Queen I put FangFang down for her nap, and I did a few more sink-loads of laundry. We should have a washer in the apartment in which we’re staying in Guangzhou, but I need to have at least enough clean clothes for everyone to get us there! Madeleine CaiQun took a bath while I did laundry. This girl LOVES her bath time, so she’s been very much enjoying playing in the water for an hour or so each day while FangFang naps.

Once FangFang got up, we broke out the play-doh for a bit, and then we headed back to the mall down the street to do a bit of shopping and have dinner. Madeleine CaiQun had been insisting that she’d seen a shark in a tank at the mall. None of the rest of us had seen it at all, but she said it was there, and we promised to look. We walked all around the 5th floor – nothing. We said we’d go up to the 6th floor, and we started to make our lap, and we hadn’t gone too far before she said, “Guys! Stop!” and there it was! We weren’t sure what to expect from her description of a shark in a tank…but it turns out there really was a shark in a tank at the mall! Why? It’s completely unclear. But there was a shark in a tank ūüôā

After we found the shark, we had dinner (back to Grandma’s Home – it was very good again!) and then did a little bit of shopping before heading back to our hotel. We made a quick stop in our room, and then Danny and FangFang and I went back to Walmart to pick up a few necessities (more water and more suckers!) and get some things to take for donations to the orphanage tomorrow.

I put FangFang in the Ergo for that brief trip, and she was NOT pleased. I’d tried it earlier in the afternoon to an even more disgruntled reaction, but I wanted to try it again to see if it would be at all an option for us for our day trip tomorrow, since Glenn’s advice was to leave the beloved stroller at the hotel. She doesn’t seem physically uncomfortable in it, but the emotional intensity of our closeness is pretty overwhelming for her. Her first reaction was to cry and arch away, but when I offered a sucker, she stopped crying and just leaned away from me and was rarely willing to make eye contact or even look up at me. So…for the moment, it’s an option, though it’s not ideal. But when we got back to the hotel room, I took her out of the Ergo and let her scoot herself around for a little while, and she was back to her happy little self, jabbering away and wanting to be tickled and laughing her adorable little laugh ūüôā

Both girls are asleep now, and I’m going to join them shortly. Please be praying for our trip to Beihai tomorrow. Please pray for Madeleine CaiQun’s heart as she continues to adjust to being a big sister again. Please pray for the logistics of train travel with a new-to-our-family 3-year-old with OI, and please pray for the emotions of returning to a place at which she lived for quite a while and perhaps seeing people she knew before her time at her foster home (and almost certainly seeing the people who brought her to us on Monday). Glenn has told us we should not expect to be allowed to enter the orphanage and the baby rooms themselves, as we do not have any official permission to do so, but I’d love it if you’d pray that something would change, and we’d be able to go in. It has happened before. I’d love to have as much information possible for FangFang as she gets older. We’ll also visit her finding spot and perhaps see some more of the city which her birth parents may call home. It sounds as if it’s a pretty small city – actually small, not just small by Chinese standards! Glenn estimated its population as around 60,000 people, so that should be really interesting in and of itself, as every city I’ve visited thus far in China has been home to millions of people. I also may not get to update tomorrow night – we will return to Nanning around dinner time, and then on Friday we will take the train to Guangzhou, so we’ll need to get most of our suitcases packed up again tomorrow night. If you don’t hear any official update from me tomorrow, please be praying for our travel day and for our settling into the apartments we’ve reserved in Guangzhou (and that they’d be alright). Thanks for following along and supporting us and praying for us in this journey, friends!

Preparing for Attachment and Bonding (and How You Can Help)

The process of adoption is intense – the home study, the paperwork, the money, the travel, and the attention to detail through it all. It can be easy to see the travel to complete your child’s adoption as the finish line, the point at which you will have accomplished what you set out to do. Then the process is over, and you can celebrate! The celebration is, of course, real and deserved – a child who was without a family is now a beloved son or daughter. However, that is not the true finish line but rather the starting point for the¬†real process – parenting, living life together, loving this child.

Matt and I have been thoughtful, these recent days and weeks, about what that will mean and what our next few months will look like. A lot of the specifics are still to be determined, depending on how her adjustment seems to be going in the first few days and weeks. But what we do know is that we’ll need to be showing FangFang that we are her forever family – that we will consistently be here to love her, to care for her, and to meet her needs.

There’s a lot about FangFang’s past that we don’t know – and even what we do know is¬†her¬†story, not ours, and it’s for her to share when and with whom she chooses. However, I do feel comfortable in laying out the implications of the obvious. This precious little girl, before she turned 3 years old, had lived in 3 different environments. Before she reaches 3.5, she’ll be in her 4th.¬†Imagine with me for a moment what that would feel like – how it would affect your sense of security and your ability to trust – to live in 3 different places in less than 3 years, and not just 3 different places, but with 3 entirely different sets of caregivers. Imagine what it would be like if you were a child, and not only was this happening to you, but you had little to no understanding of what was occurring. You didn’t have the language to comprehend it, even if someone tried to explain it, and certainly no one asked your opinion about any of it.

That’s not the way God designed life to work. What’s supposed to happen is that a baby is surrounded from birth by familiar people, whose voices she has heard while in the womb. The baby expresses a need, and those people meet her need, and her relationship with them deepens. She learns to recognize and express her needs, and she learns that her needs will be met – that she will be warm, well-fed, safe, and loved – and she learns that these people are the ones who will take care of her.

But we live in a broken world, and that’s not the way FangFang’s life began. Because of that, we’re going to be parenting her a little differently than we would parent a biological child. We need to build these parent-child relationships from scratch. We need to show her that Matt and I are the people she can count on to feed her, keep her warm, love her, and care for her – and that we’re different from everyone else she’ll encounter. Doing that with a 3-year-old is a little bit more complex than doing it with a newborn baby, but we’ve been reviewing and will be using some tried and true attachment-building strategies that adoptive parents have been putting into practice for years. We’ll be working on developing eye contact (sometimes using stickers and funny games). We¬†plan to treat her as younger than her chronological age, and we’ll hold and carry her as much as she’ll allow. We’ll offer a lot of healthy snacks and allow her to grow in her security with us through seeing our consistent provision of food. We’ll be band-aid parents. We’ll do mirroring play. We’ll cocoon – keeping her world small for a time (the length of which has yet to be determined) to enable her to get to know us and focus on building relationships with us without the distractions of other people and activities.

And as we do that, we also ask for your support and help. We need to give her the opportunity to learn what family really is and to learn to trust Matt and me specifically. And we’re not starting from a blank slate – we’re coming into her life at a time when she has learned, through experience, that caregivers leave, that the people she trusts today may be gone tomorrow. In that context, Matt and I need to be, for a time, the only people who meet her needs. To that end, we ask that you would refrain from offering her food, comfort, or affection.¬†Please feel free to wave or smile at her and to interact with us as we are holding her, but please stay away from things like picking her up or giving her hugs or kisses, even if she seems to be initiating that contact. We plan to keep her close by, but if you see her¬†seeking food, comfort, or affection elsewhere, please re-direct her toward us instead of offering to meet those needs yourself. A simple, “Oh, it looks like you’re hungry! Let’s find your mama,” would be so helpful. In time, after we have established the foundational family relationships, we are excited for all of you to get to know her as you know our other kids and to surround her with the same love with which you surround them. We just need to allow her to form bonds with us as her parents before she branches out into those other relationships, and it would be a tremendous blessing to us if you would support us in this process.

And if you have any questions about any of this, please feel free to let us know at any time – we always welcome questions and conversation!

preparing for adoption

Matt and I have had the honor of doing pre-marital counseling for a number of couples at our church. One of the things we try to communicate to couples is that they’re guaranteed to be spending a lot of time preparing for the wedding – but they also need to make sure they’re spending good time preparing for their¬†marriage. The wedding itself will be beautiful and wonderful, and it’s an important celebration – but its beauty is merely a reflection of the beauty of the¬†deeper reality of the lifelong bond of marriage.

Adoption is similar in a way. There is so much to the process – the collection of documents, the gathering of funds, the planning of travel – that it’s easy to get wrapped up the preparations for the adoption day. But the true beauty is in the life lived thereafter, the knitting together of hearts that were once strangers but are now family, the healing and the growing and the loving together.

And this past weekend, I filled out immigration paperwork, but I also read about trauma and fear and their manifestations in tiny hearts and bodies and lives. I reminisced about our early days and weeks with Madeleine CaiQun, who truly settled into family life very easily, all things considered – but who¬†definitely carries scars from the trauma her early days contained. Thinking of the moments in which we’ve most clearly seen the effects of those scars always¬†brings a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes.

And I wonder…how will our baby #4 react to her adoption? We believe her adoption is for her good (or we’d be monsters to pursue it) – but we also know that it is going to be yet another hard-beyond-hard event in the life of this little girl, who has already endured much more than any two-year-old (or adult) should be asked to endure.

I’m gearing up. I’m preparing myself both for rejection and for a velcro baby. I’m preparing for fits of anger, unending tears, a little one who shuts down completely and/or who wants nothing more than to leave the hotel room in which she’s stuck with us. I’m reminding myself that¬†as much as I’d love to explore¬†the beautiful areas of China in which we’ll be spending our time, the adoption trip is all about survival (and as much of the beginnings of attachment as we can muster). I’m remembering¬†our favorite relationship-building activities – food sharing and stickers on noses and lollipops and parallel play. And though I pray frequently that this scenario does not arise (please pray for this with me!), I’m preparing myself for the possibility that she could fracture in China, and I might have to splint a broken bone while there.

The adoption process itself is an odd mix of both drudgery and excitement. But it is once¬†babies are in their mamas’ arms that the true work of adoption parenting begins. We’re getting close, and I’m getting ready!

adoption love

Someone in a China adoption Facebook group to which I belong posted a link to an article this past weekend that started quite a discussion. The article itself – entitled, “A Different Kind of Love: Does a mother love a child she has adopted in the same way she might love a birth child? And why is it such a taboo to ask?” – is old, but I still believe¬†a response is appropriate. Most importantly, I want my own adopted daughter to be absolutely certain of my thoughts and feelings on the matter. And beyond that, adoptive families do receive questions (or sometimes statements) along the lines of the topics the article addresses, people wondering if they could ever love an adopted child as much as they would love a child biologically related to them, and I’d like to address that issue.

For those of you who want the short answer, I’m going to state it unequivocally here:¬†I love all of my children immeasurably and uniquely but equally – none of my children are loved more than any other.¬†Each one is beyond precious to me, loved with the entirety of my heart and being.

It’s true that there are differences in¬†parenting biological children and adopted children, but the same could be said of boys and girls or babies born in summer and babies born in winter. The same is true of children with different personalities. As a parent, my job is not to have a mechanical set of procedures in place to be followed in exactly the same manner for each child. My job is to be thoughtful and discerning, studying each of my children, looking for their strengths and weaknesses, walking with each one through life and loving and guiding them in whatever ways they need.

For me, my love for my children began even as I learned just tidbits of information about who they were. Those 20-week ultrasounds and the referral pictures and documents were oh-so-precious in those months during which we waited to meet our children.

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Miranda at her 20-week ultrasound; our first update photos on Madeleine CaiQun, received just after we submitted our Letter of Intent to adopt her; and Atticus at his 20-week ultrasound

We didn’t have much information, but we knew a little, and we treasured that which we knew and made plans to bond with each of our kiddos upon their arrival. And when they did arrive…whether at birth or at age 2…we were smitten with them. They were ours, and for that reason and that reason alone, we loved them wholeheartedly.

We also realized that we had zero control over who they were! Each was a person in their own right with distinct likes and dislikes and needs and wants, only a few of which we could have guessed prior to their arrival. We needed to pursue each child’s heart and be thoughtful and intentional as we sought to create a bond with each one. We spent hours taking walks on beautiful days with that late-spring baby held close in the Moby wrap.

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Our most recent baby, who needed to know I was nearby at night in order to sleep well, was kept close at night.¬†And¬†we employed a litany of strategies¬†designed specifically to foster attachment with the child whom we adopted after she’d spent 2 years living in an orphanage.

Honestly, our attachment dance with Madeleine CaiQun has been and continues to be a joy¬†– it has gone much more smoothly than we knew it might, and we know that others have much harder roads to walk. I don’t mean to belittle the very real struggles other families face in forming healthy relationships, whether with biological children or adopted children.¬†However, attachment is not the same as love. And even beyond that, the love we have for our children cannot be dependent upon them –¬†that’s not what love looks like.¬†Self-interest might look like that…but love doesn’t.

Love looks like a Savior who knew that we¬†would blow it, that we would turn away from the God of the universe and that we would fail at loving the people around us,¬†so He came to earth and did it all for us, in fact gave His very life for us. And then one of His closest friends tells us, “We love because He first loved us.” We are enabled to love by virtue of His love.

All of our children, biological and adopted, have moments in which they are disrespectful, unkind, and just plain hard to love. And yet, I am their mother. I don’t love them because they obey, I don’t love them because they make me look good, I don’t love them because they’re fun, and I certainly don’t love them because they came from my body.

I love them because¬†they’re my children – biological or adopted, they’re my children, and I love them to no end. And, God help me, if called to do so, I would give my life for each and every one of these precious souls, however they came to be part of our family.

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