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.

Book Thoughts: Teaching from Rest

Those of you who follow me on Instagram will already be aware that the first book I chose to work toward my 2018 goal of reading more non-fiction is Teaching from Rest: A Homeschooler’s Guide to Unshakable Peace by Sarah Mackenzie.

Every time a question comes up in the homeschool mom groups on Facebook asking for book recommendations for moms themselves, this book is suggested over and over again. I couldn’t figure out what could possibly make it that popular. Surely it couldn’t be that good, right? Wrong. It is that good.

Even the foreword of my copy is covered in hand-written notes!

Early in Part One of the book, the author shares a quote from C.S. Lewis:

The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s “own,” or “real” life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life – the life God is sending one day by day; what one calls one’s “real life” is a phantom of one’s own imagination.

She follows that with some practical application for homeschooling moms: “Surrender your idea of what the ideal homeschool day is supposed to look like and take on, with both hands, the day that is. Rest begins with acceptance, with surrender. Can we accept what He is sending today?”

Wow.

As a mom of 4 kids ages 7 and under, my day is full of “interruptions.” I never accomplish all that I write down on my “to do list.” Never.

And yet this is the life God has given me. I need to slow down and accept, moment by moment, that this child, the child in front of me right now, the one who is melting down because she didn’t get her way or the one who is celebrating the pee art dinosaurs he has just made on the couch (true story – see below), needs my attention and my affection and my loving teaching. And that is exactly what God would have me prioritize (as opposed to the next item on my list or, worse, the next post I could scroll to see on Facebook), and when I accept that, my attitude will be much more peaceful and in line with where God would have me focus my attention and energies.

pee art – “two dinosaurs”

I also appreciated the reminder of what I’m truly called to do. The author writes, “Most of my own frustration comes for forgetting what my real task is in the first place. He’s called me to be faithful, yet I’m determined to be successful.”

Yes. Obviously I need to have goals for my children – but especially as they grow older, I cannot force them to accomplish any given objective. In truth, my job is to be a faithful teacher. I need to pray. I need to meet each child exactly where he or she needs me to meet them. I need to teach, to present materials and ideas and concepts, and to encourage thoughtfulness. Each child will do something different, something unique and very much their own, with what I present to them, and my job cannot be to force those results, but to be faithful in what I teach.

I also so appreciated her writing about what curriculum is. She says, “Curriculum isn’t something we buy. It’s something we teach. Something we embody. Something we love. It is the form and content of our children’s learning experiences.” And a few pages later she writes, “Remember, how far we progress in a book does not matter nearly as much as what happens in the mind and heart of our student, and for that matter, in ourselves.”

I am so guilty of thinking that the curriculum I use in teaching my children lies solely in the materials I purchase. And then I become bound to those purchased materials, obligated to complete them in their entirety within a less-than-12-month time period. And that’s just not reality.

It is my job to educate my children. The materials I purchase are the tools at my disposal for pursuing that objective. If this year’s poetry selection in our purchased curriculum just isn’t doing anything for us, but I’ve heard about another book that is stellar, a substitution may be a great idea. If we take breaks from our purchased curriculum to study emotional self-regulation or visit a museum and learn about dinosaurs or listen to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches or to go to the fire station or to do a unit study on the Olympics and that enriches my children’s education, that’s just fine.

It is my job to nurture my own children, connect with them, prioritize my relationships with them. No one else’s homeschool will look exactly like ours, and that’s the way it should be. In working to serve God and my own family, I have freedom to teach what and how my kids need, in a way that works for our family.

I was encouraged by this book to grow myself, to be a person who slows down and reads and contemplates ideas. I want to live a life that I’d be happy to have my children imitate. I want to slow down, seek God for our family’s homeschooling journey, and really focus on relationships with each of my children. I want to take each moment as it comes, whatever it brings, and teach my kids throughout the day. I finish the book encouraged and refreshed in this long winter stretch of homeschooling, excited to live out these ideas of teaching from rest.

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!

Two-And-A-Half Months with Our Little Guy!

Our little guy is now over 2 months old!

Atticus is an incredibly happy baby.

054And he continues to be everyone’s favorite little snuggle bug.

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He’s definitely growing well. At his two-month appointment with his pediatrician, he was in the 88th percentile for length and 73rd percentile for weight. He seems so big to me that I was actually surprised those numbers weren’t higher!

He’s also getting stronger all the time. He enjoys tummy time more now that he can hold his head up a lot better – and of course the girls are always eager to come hang out with him on his blanket.

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He truly enjoys his sisters. He’s a social little guy, so he doesn’t like being put down and left alone, but I often set him up in his bouncy seat and ask one of the girls to sit and talk to him while I get dinner going or switch the laundry or something of that nature. I’ll return to find them cooing and smiling at each other happily 🙂

He gets a ton of language exposure. I was actually worried that he wouldn’t pick up words as quickly as Miranda did, since I wouldn’t be able to give him as much direct one-on-one time, but now that I’ve seen what his life actually looks like, I realize how silly that concern was! Matt and I both still talk to him quite a bit, but the girls are also speaking to him constantly. On top of that, we read to the girls a lot, both for school and for fun, and he’s around for much of that and just soaks it in along with them.

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And – in response to the #1 question for parents of babies his age – he is sleeping very well 🙂 He gives us good, long stretches of sleep at night, usually just waking to nurse 2-3 times each night. His naps are more variable, which is not ideal (from my perspective), but it’s very typical for a baby his age, and it’s not a real problem.

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All in all, I think things are going pretty well. We’re not back to our normal patterns from our life before his arrival, but we never will be. It feels like we’ve established at least the outline of what our new normal (for now) is, though. We’re able to do school, run errands, and take care of most of the everyday tasks of cooking and cleaning. And for the most part, Matt and I are both able to do the work we need to do and have quality time together. We’ve even been able to start spending a little bit of time with friends and having people over for dinner again.

There are hard things about this stage of life, though. I often feel like everything continues to run smoothly as long as I am working toward that end constantly – using any spare minutes to get a few more dishes into the dishwasher or start a load of laundry. There’s more to do, and everything just takes longer these days. I never know when I’m going to have a free 20 minutes to accomplish (or even start!) any task that needs to be done, and the unpredictability of it is hard for me. I’d so like to be back to my pre-pregnancy weight and be able to wear something from my closet other than yoga pants. It can be hard to connect with friends when we have 3 young kiddos. And I don’t feel like I get true breaks – since Atticus won’t take a bottle, the instant I finish feeding him, the clock starts ticking down toward the next time he’ll need me.

But the thing about adding a child to our family for the third time is that I know this time is fleeting. This stage won’t last forever – or even very long at all. Soon enough Atticus will begin eating solid food and no longer need me to be his sole source of sustenance – and then I’ll blink, and he’ll be done nursing entirely. His naps will become more regular – and then someday he’ll give them up completely. I think that this time around, I still feel the pressure of the challenges, but I can work with them. I set him up in the bouncy seat and talk to him while I do the dishes, and I grab a book to read while he sleeps in my arms. And I know that these particular challenges will pass, but in the meantime, there’s a heck of a lot of joy available.

I get to see my girls growing in their roles as helpers and nurturers. I get to see the pure joy of Atticus’s smiles and coos and laughter – and I get to be the one at whom he so often directs those beautiful gestures. I get to love and snuggle and read books and answer questions and teach facts and encourage kindness and pray for growth. I get to grow myself, learning more about patience and gentleness and kindness as I feel myself stretched.

These are good things. We’re thankful for them and thankful for the little guy whose arrival ushered us into this new stage of life.

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a momentous occasion

Today has been a momentous day for multiple reasons.

First, it is exactly one year ago today that we first saw Madeleine CaiQun’s file. That file contained precious few words and seemingly more questions than answers. And yet, through it, there began to take shape in our minds an image of a little girl. And the bottom line for us became that this little girl needed a family, and it seemed possible that we could be that family for her. We knew she could come to us with undisclosed needs, be they physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual. We knew that the image of this child that our minds were beginning to form could be accurate or not. We didn’t know what the consequences for our lives and Miranda’s life and her life would be if we were to move forward with pursuing her adoption (or not). But we knew she needed a family. We believed we could be that family, that we could care for her and nurture her and love her and that there would likely be overwhelming and scary moments but that God would carry us through, and we committed to moving forward with adding her to our family.

And oh how God has blessed us through this little girl! Each of us is being challenged and is growing in new ways. She brings so much joy to our lives and to our family. Today, as I snuggled with her at naptime, I told her, “Mei mei, Mama loves you.” She smiled back up at me and said, “Yeah, Mama love mei mei,” followed quickly by, “And Baba love mei mei! And jie jie love mei mei!” Yes, sweet girl, we all love you so, so much.

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Today was also momentous in that we were able to reunite our little CaiQun with her former cribmate from her time at her orphanage.

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Obviously at this age, the girls’ time together was not exactly composed of intimate, soul-baring conversations, but CaiQun did seem to remember Lily, and we hope that it will be an encouragement to her as she gets older to have this relationship from her past.

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And last, but not least, tonight was the first night that our little mei mei asked to pray at bedtime. Each night, as Matt and I put the girls to bed, one of us will pray for the girls and for our night and anything else on our hearts. Occasionally Miranda will tell us that she wants to pray, too, which we always love, and tonight CaiQun announced that she would pray, and we got to hear her sweet little voice addressing God – beautiful. We are so thankful to have her as part of our family.