A Sweet Valentine’s Day Project

I’m always looking for fun opportunities to connect with and encourage my kiddos. I’d read recently about a practice some parents have had of making a heart for each kiddo for each day of February and writing on each heart something that they love and appreciate about that child.

I love that idea – except that my kids would absolutely want to keep those hearts. But they are young and do a horrible job of storing and preserving mementos. Within weeks, if not days, I’d be walking down the hallway, stepping on crumpled up hearts saying things like, “Miranda Grace, I love your strength and intensity. They sometimes make life challenging for you, but they are going to serve you well in life, and I appreciate all the work you have put in over the last couple years in learning how to use them well” or, “Madeleine CaiQun, I love your ability to focus on what is important. You have a gift for seeing the big picture and reminding us all about what we should truly prioritize.” And I am in a stage of life in which de-cluttering is a priority. With 4 small children (and 2 sentimental adults), stuff just tends to multiply here, and I’m on a mission to counteract that as much as is possible.

And so I ordered us a collection of notebooks. There were enough for each of us, even Matt and me, to have one. I labelled them and wrote introductory notes on the first page of each about how we are a family – our love is not contingent, but we can still love and appreciate various characteristics of each other, and it’s good to recognize those and encourage each other with sharing about what we see. And then we got to work on filling them!

I have to laugh about the way in which we as a family completed this project. I had grand plans at the beginning – 30 pages per book, so I’d write something in each person’s book each night and also have each child write in 1-2 books per night, and Matt would write when he could, and we’d get it done. We started off pretty strong, the big girls and me doing a good number of entries on the first night. And then we fell off track and ended up needing to spend a lot of time the last couple days finishing up everything – and in fact I realized on February 13 that one child had not written in either of two siblings’ books, so I saved some pages for her to do on the 14th, but otherwise Matt and I stayed up and finished up all of the books late on the night of the 13th – except mine 😉 That’s the life of a mom! Matt will work with the kids to finish it up soon, but his and the kids are all done now. The big girls have been reading theirs, and I’m hoping that these will be encouraging touchstones for them in the years to come. Everyone needs to hear about ways they are loved and appreciated.

Even incomplete, my book is already such an encouragement to me. In fact, I was teary after just the first entry. Madeleine CaiQun was the first to write in my book, and this was what she wrote:

“Mommy, I love you because you love me. Love, MeiMei”

Ah!! My day was made. It continues to be made every time I look at that page. She knows I love her. She rests in that. And that is what, for her, defines our relationship. I’m so thankful.

It took some time. It took some effort. But my kiddos won’t be little forever, and I won’t have the chance to pour into them in the same way forever. I want to take advantage of any opportunities we have to build a sense of love and respect and appreciation within our family. For me, these moments of connection and encouragement are oh so worth it. I’m glad we added this project to our agenda for the month.

FAQ: Home Almost Six Weeks! How’s FangFang adjusting? How are you?

At times it feels longer and at times shorter, but we’ve now been home with FangFang for almost 6 whole weeks! Some of the questions I get most frequently these days, in my few interactions with people who are not medical professionals or grocery store employees, are about the big picture of her adjustment and ours.

Attachment and bonding are always processes, processes with many variables and unknowns, processes best examined in retrospect. However, they are of such paramount importance for adoptive families that we adoptive parents are constantly on high alert, watching for indicators of progress (or lack thereof). We wonder to what degree our children are really getting it, that this is what family is; we wonder if they are really beginning to trust us; we wonder to what degree to indulge and to what degree to push; we wonder if we’re making the right decisions for our new children and for our families as a whole.

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You may remember that FangFang did not exactly appreciate my presence or attempts at caring for her in China. Having spent our time in China telling myself just to stay calm and positive and keep pursuing her in love regardless of what she did, I’ve needed to make sure I have been doing things to cultivate the warm, fuzzy love feelings for both of us. I’ll sometimes wrap her up in a blanket and rock her back and forth and look into her eyes, taking advantage of the oxytocin bump for us both. I’ll hold her on my lap while I read out loud or offer a hug or a kiss or a smile as we pass by each other. I try to take advantage of those 3-minute lulls in activity to do something relationship-building with her (and the other kiddos). We’ve incorporated more loving rituals into our lives as a family as a whole to build connections between all of us; for instance, before we begin our “reading school” time each day, the kids and I all sing the “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, What a Wonderful Child You Are” song together. And as our time as a family of six grows, the love between us all is growing, too.

FangFang had actually decided pretty quickly after we left Sharon and Daniel that I was her person now, and that has been consistent, for which I’m thankful! The Ergo or Tula carriers, which she despised in China? She would now love to spend hours being worn and often protests when I tell her she needs to get down and play.

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She looks to us in new situations, and she frequently asks to be held – she’ll scoot up to me and put her arms up and ask, “Baby FangFang?” multiple times a day! She’s a pretty snuggly little girl. One night one of us casually mentioned something about love, and she, sitting next to me on the couch, looked up at me and put her hand on my cheek, and announced, “FangFang love.” Cue heart melt!

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She has continued to warm up to Matt more and more. She still prefers me, but she allows him to put her to bed, and if I’m unavailable, she’ll let him hold her, and she asks about him when he’s away from home.

She is generally a happy little girl, for which I’m very thankful, since that was the impression we got of her from the photos her foster home shared. I was worried that it would take a long time for her spark to come back after leaving them and coming to us. She does have occasional sad moments whose reason we can’t entirely discern and for which her English is insufficient to explain, which is very sad but is also very typical for kids adopted internationally. We try to hold her close and reassure her that we love her and she is safe, and eventually something (usually food) brings her back to her typical happy state!

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She also loves the other kiddos, and they love her, though there is certainly a large amount of interpersonal drama between any and all of them, too. We’re trying to cultivate kind, generous hearts and develop good relationships, but everything is a work in progress!

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I’m not entirely sure how to read her interactions with others outside of our family. Thus far, we have kept her with either Matt or me at all times. We haven’t exactly cocooned (a common adoptive family bonding strategy, keeping your child’s world small for a period of time after they come home, staying home as much as possible), largely due to the necessity of medical appointments and evaluations – in addition to our visit to the Omaha clinic, so far she has seen our pediatrician, had a local X-ray, a CT scan, a private PT evaluation, a private OT evaluation, an evaluation by the school system, and met with a local orthopedic surgeon. We’ve also been going to our church worship gatherings on Sunday mornings and just keeping her in the sanctuary with us for the entire time, and we’ve had a few people come over for dinner since we’ve been home. She is definitely more of an extrovert than most members of our family – she loves interacting with others. For the most part, she warms up to people pretty quickly but still continually looks to us for reassurance and generally behaves appropriately with them, which is encouraging. However, we do notice some overly affectionate tendencies, and there was one night recently on which some friends stayed for dinner, and within minutes of their arrival, she was reaching out toward the guy for him to hold her – the return of the mommy shopping! We weren’t sure that she initially realized that he wasn’t Matt – but it was still a little disconcerting.

We’ll continue to take things slowly. In the grand scheme of things, 6 weeks is not very long, particularly for a child who has lived for over 3 years outside of a family. There are definitely moments during which Matt and I yearn for a date night by ourselves, or we think about being able to go to our missional community group meetings, or I wish it were easier to go hang out with friends. This is just a stage, though. Laying the groundwork for healthy, secure attachment is so important, and we want to respect that and take the necessary time to do it right, so we’ll hang in there, keep reading the signals, and do what we believe we need to do to facilitate bonding and attachment.

Overall, we are so glad that she really is settling in pretty well. She seems to be increasingly understanding that we are her family and that this is her home. She seems happy. She’s learning English and increasingly able to communicate her needs and desires. We’re all getting to know one another more and establishing these new family dynamics, and everyone seems to be doing pretty well with that. We’re worn out, both mentally and physically, and we know we still have a long way to go, but I don’t think we could ask for much more at this point in our journey!

Christmas 2016

Christmas of 2016 was an odd one for us. Having been in China, I’d missed nearly all of our church’s Advent worship gatherings. And while we did see Christmas decorations in China, we spent all of our time in the southern part of China (think: Florida), and my heart was focused on adoption, official appointments, bonding, attachment, and parenting, not on Christmas. We arrived home on the 23rd, so by Christmas, we were still crazy jet-lagged. And most of the at-home family was sick with a bad cold and cough.

We made the most of it, though, and tried to celebrate Christmas a bit. Matt and my mom had done some decorating, including setting up the Christmas tree. Of course, my mom and brother David were here when we got back, and my dad had been here before and then flown out to meet me and fly home with the girls and me, so we had a small contingent of family here to celebrate. Conventional wisdom is that you should keep your newly adopted child’s world small when they arrive home, limiting interactions primarily to immediate family until they learn what family really is. Larger Christmas celebrations with extended family don’t quite fall into that description, but we figured things in China were so chaotic that a few more days of chaos weren’t going to ruin everything, and we’d only have a few extra people. We’d limit holding FangFang and feeding her to just Matt and me, but we’d enjoy our time with family. All of them had been here helping while I was gone, and we wanted to give them the chance to meet FangFang and see MeiMei, and I wanted to see them.

Plus they agreed to handle the Christmas dinner preparations 🙂 True to their word, they did just that – with my mom’s help, David made us some awesome vegetarian lasagna, and my dad made his traditional cheese torte. They also handled most of the clean up and were just generally helpful in those crazy first few days home! And in the midst of the craziness, we managed to have some fun 🙂

We made and frosted our customary cut-out cookies!

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We’ll just pretend that Madeleine CaiQun was dressed for the occasion…

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The littles were, of course, more interested in eating than in frosting, and, what with it being Christmas and all, we allowed the indulgence 🙂

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On Christmas morning we decided not to drag it out but to let everyone dive into the gift opening.

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Everyone got gifts with which they were thrilled – it was a morning of blessings 🙂

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When you have OI and an always-planning mama, you and your brother may both get giant bean bags for Christmas! They’re tons of fun in general, but they’re also perfect for comfort after major fractures – this way we’ll have them when we need them, but we can also just enjoy them for now!

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We, of course, used the day together to continue to cultivate those precious new sibling relationships.

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Miranda really has stepped up to the task of welcoming FangFang into the family and being a loving big sister to her, and that has been such a sweet thing to see.

And of course my two big girls continued to enjoy being reunited! They have moments of sibling drama, but they also play together so well so much of the time.

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And we enjoyed our sweet treats – cheese torte for the win!

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And for me? Honestly, all I wanted was for my whole family to be home and together. However, Matt really outdid himself. When we bought our house, the room we both agreed was most in need of some updates was the upstairs bathroom, but there were always reasons to tackle other rooms first, so we still hadn’t gotten around to that one. While I was gone, Matt completely renovated it for me! The full details are here, but in essence, he took this:

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The whales, people. The whales. Also, not pictured: a door that never quite shut all the way.

And he turned it into this!

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I love it. This guy is a keeper.

It may not have been our most put-together, well-planned, healthiest, Christ-focused Christmas. But we did what we could, we enjoyed our time together, and we sought to bless each other and celebrate amidst the crazy, and for this year, we count that as a win 🙂

Monday – Safari Park

Today is another day of waiting for FangFang’s medical exam results, so we got up reasonably early and packed up to head to the Chimelong Safari Park. Last time I was in Guangzhou, we’d visited the zoo, but most of the kids in our group were younger that time, and I’d heard the safari park was great for slightly older kids. Our guide recommended it and offered to set up a driver for us, so we wouldn’t have to take a taxi or the subway, so we went for it!

We started off our visit with the “Safari On Wheels” – basically a zoo tram through a number of different animal habitats. That part was very cool – we were so close to so many animals!

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People could also drive their cars individually on this same path, which many did, and it was clear that they did not take these signs seriously –

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We saw person after person hanging out through their sunroof windows throwing food to the animals!

After our tram ride, we ate a bit of lunch and then walked through the rest of the park. One of the first exhibits we saw was that of the white tigers. They were actually finishing up a show in which they suspend pieces of meat above the water so that the tigers will jump to get them and then fall into the water. We weren’t thrilled with that idea…but it was nice to see the tigers!

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The highlight of my day came around the giraffe exhibit. For 15 yuan (about $2) you could buy a leafy branch to feed to the giraffes. I bought one for each of my kiddos and got FangFang out of the stroller so she could participate. The giraffes grab on and tug pretty hard, and Madeleine CaiQun lost her whole branch to the giraffe right away, and while FangFang wouldn’t hold it herself, she LOVED seeing the giraffe eat the leaves when I held out our branch. I bought a few more, and both girls were so happy about it.

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And then, I don’t really know what prompted it, but FangFang decided it was time to snuggle up to me!

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And then she puckered her lips for some kisses!

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It can be so easy for me to focus on her preference for Sharon – her constant calls for “jiuma! jiuma!” – that I can miss the growth that really is occurring in FangFang’s and my relationship. We have a long way to go – which is to be expected! We’ve known each other for only a week! – but we’re making progress each day.

The moment ended, though, and we moved on to see some more animals!

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Daniel bought some bananas to feed to the elephants, and though the girls didn’t quite have the arm strength to make the throws themselves, they enjoyed that experience, as well!

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After feeding the elephants, we finally made it over to see the pandas! This was one of the highlights of the safari park for me. These are the triplet pandas born a couple years ago!

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Making that exhibit even more enjoyable was the attendant near the exhibit, who spoke very good English and talked with us all about pandas – it was great to learn more about them!

The last animal we saw was the pygmy hippo – I don’t think I’d ever seen one before!

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Then it was back to the hotel! We stopped and got ourselves some 4 yuan ice cream cones at McDonald’s before going in – FangFang was quite impressed 🙂

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And then we ended up back at Macau Street Restaurant for dinner!

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There was time for a little bit of play afterwards, and then our no-napping-again-today baby needed to get to bed. I think I actually let her stay up too late, because she was very tired and cried for quite a while at bedtime. It’s hard to distinguish between grief and a tired 3-year-old’s anger at having to stop playing and go to sleep, and I think both were probably at work tonight. She finally did fall asleep, though, and after some more playtime, Madeleine CaiQun did, as well.

FangFang and I have an 8:30 AM Consulate Appointment tomorrow morning, for which we need to be in the hotel lobby at 7:30 – eek! – not this night owl’s favorite plan! But it’s for a good reason 🙂 Then I think we’ll have some more sightseeing with our guide in the afternoon and evening. We’ll be home on Friday, which still feels so far away, but we really only have 2 more days in Guangzhou, which is crazy. It seems like this trip has been so long, and yet there are also ways in which it feels like we just got here. I can’t wait to see the rest of my babies – and yet my heart also harbors sadness for FangFang at this next loss she will experience, leaving her language and her culture, probably not to return for several more years at least. And yet, she is now a precious and beloved member of a family that adores her, and she’s about to become an American citizen and be connected with some of the best doctors in the world for treating OI. I think the benefits outweigh the costs, but the costs are still significant – but while we mourn for those, we celebrate that she is coming home, that we are all going home soon!

Sunday – Resting, Touring, and Waiting

Adoption is always a game of “hurry up and wait,” and your time in China is no exception. You get to Asia, and you spend a couple days adjusting to the time change before getting your child; you get your child, then you hang out in province for a couple days waiting for their passport to be ready; you get to Guangzhou and do your child’s medical exam, and then you wait for its results; then you do your Consulate Appointment, and then you wait for your child’s visa to be issued. Right now we’re in the stage in which we’re waiting for the results of our child’s medical exam – in particular the TB test results – so that we can go to the Consulate Appointment.

On Sunday morning we slept in and played a bit. I picked up a new “diaper bag” for our time in China – I’d been so focused on condensing and packing so as to get everything to China that I hadn’t really thought about how I’d carry things around once here. At pretty much all times, I need to have all of my break box supplies, some diapers and wipes and extra clothes for the girls, and bathroom supplies (one should not assume that a public bathroom in China will have toilet paper, a sink, or soap). And sometimes I need to have water bottles, snacks, forks for the girls to use to eat, and some entertainment – but not all of that fits well in my backpack. Saturday night we made a quick stop at the shops near our hotel, and I bought a cheap bag with a fun pattern that coordinates well with our stroller 🙂

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Madeleine CaiQun has quite an imagination and has LOVED being able to make up stories and scripts to play with her stuffed animals and toys and involving others in them, particularly her Uncle Danny. As the second child, she’s not often given an opportunity to be in charge, so she is loving this!

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Having requested some restaurant recommendations beyond those in the hotel itself, we ventured out in search of a restaurant called “Muslim Chicken” but without an English sign announcing it as such. For those who may follow after us, to get there, you go past the Starbucks and exit out of the hotel near the entrance to the Food Street restaurant. Walk past the 7-11, and keep going until you get to the Museum of the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King. It’s the first restaurant after that – its identification sign (which is not in English) has a green background. I think we could have ordered better, but our food was pretty good, and all of us ate a decent meal for about $11.

Then we headed back to the hotel and got ready to head out for some touring. First we visited the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. I didn’t really know anything about Dr. Sun Yat-sen before that, so it was an interesting introduction to his role in China’s history. Plus it is beautiful!

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Next we headed over to the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall / Temple / Academy. It has been a place of worship and a school and is currently a museum of folk art.

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We saw beautiful paintings, furniture, and carvings of wood, ivory, and bone.

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I got fewer pictures than I would have liked, but that was in part because I spent much of our time there walking around holding FangFang, and she even let me wear her in the Ergo for part of the time!

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At times it seems that her preference for Sharon gets stronger by the day, but I also need to continue to remind myself that her tolerance of – and yes, even bonding with – me is also increasing. And she had been with us for less than a week at this point. That’s barely any time. Our time in China can feel so long, but in terms of bonding, it’s really so short. FangFang’s comfort level with all of us has increased dramatically in just this small amount of time, and that’s something for which we can be quite thankful.

We also did just a little bit of shopping, Danny and Sharon more than me. Paying for the costs associated with this adoption has pretty well wiped us out financially for the moment, but it is so important to us to incorporate elements of our daughters’ birth culture into our family’s life, so I came to China with a few specific items in mind that I was hoping to bring home.

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One of the fun parts of this trip is connecting with other adoptive families. I’ve been thinking this trip about how I’d talk with people about what it’s like to prepare for an international adoption trip. I think the way I’d describe it is that it’s like preparing to give birth, while at the same time preparing to travel overseas for several weeks to a country in which you do not speak the language, and instead of your child being a baby, you are instead handed an older child with definite thoughts, opinions, preferences, and feelings, all of which they may or may not be able to communicate effectively to you. Whether your trip goes well or not, it is stressful! It is so nice to connect with other families going through the same thing.

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After our time at the Chen Family Academy, we went back to our hotel and ventured out in search of dinner. We were looking for a noodle and dumpling place, which we did not find, but we instead ended up at the Macau Street Restaurant, a place at which we’d eaten with our travel group on our last trip! It was particularly memorable because, on our last trip, Miranda had insisted that these individually packaged wipes were “money,” and we brought several of them home with us, and the kids still play with them 🙂 We requested a few extra to bring home from this trip, as well.

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For those looking for good places to eat around the China Hotel in the future, head left out of the hotel, past the McDonald’s, past the shops and then the next hotel, go around the bend, and it’ll be soon after that. It was another good meal 🙂

After that it was back to the hotel, where I put FangFang to bed – she hadn’t napped and was quite tired! Daniel and Sharon and I stayed up chatting for a while, and then it was bedtime for everyone!