Telling My Kids Their Stories

All four of my children love to hear stories about themselves – particularly when those stories are relayed with joy and laughter. We all love the story about Atticus making pee dinosaurs on the couch (though we try not to tell it too often when he is around, for fear of encouraging future artistic endeavors of this sort!). We all find it hilarious that when I took the girls to our Mandarin teacher’s baby shower, FangFang was so excited to interact with other Chinese people that she approached all of them, saying, “Ni hao ma?” (“How are you?”)…but not being exactly fluent in Mandarin anymore, she had no idea what any of them were saying and followed up their responses with another enthusiastic, “Ni hao ma?” Miranda likes to hear about how, when we were traveling to China to adopt Madeleine CaiQun, as our airplane for our international flight taxied away from the gate in Detroit, she announced, “We’re almost to China!” We all laugh about how Matt used to pull Madeleine CaiQun’s pants up super high every time he changed her diaper, and she’d run back into the room, filled with glee, announcing to Miranda and me, “What Baba do?!?!”

(no super high pants – but I just couldn’t resist including a photo of my precious little Madeleine CaiQun from those early days home!)

Those stories are adorable and fun, but each of my children have deeper stories, the narrative arcs of their lives. For my two biological children, not only do they have big picture stories, but they have frequent photos, preserved “coming home from the hospital” outfits, favorite baby toys, and our recollections of their everyday moments. For my adopted children, it’s a bit different. In both of their cases, until they reached about 2 years old, I really have just a few pieces of paper and a couple photos for each of them. I can’t tell them what they smelled like as I snuggled their tiny newborn bodies against me, and I can’t tell them what their first foods or favorite toys were. And that makes the information and the photographs that we do have that much more precious. Those details are sacred.

FangFang asks with regularity, “Mom, you tell me my whole story?” And I walk her through it, in broad 4-year-old terms, from day one of her life until now, telling her what we know of her life. She delights in that and loves to hear it all, again and again. When I leave out details, she asks about those – “Mom, you tell me about the bed where I sleep when we were in China?” Some of the interest in hearing her story is, I expect, about seeking reassurance that we are permanent, and some of it is a straightforward desire to know and hear her own story.

And this week, Madeleine CaiQun asked, in a quiet moment, if I would tell her her whole story. “Not with everyone, though. Just you and me and Miranda. Is it my choice who I want to hear my story?”

“Yes, it is your story, and it is always your choice who you want to share it with.”

And so, as God would have it, my mom has been visiting this week, so I was able to leave the little kids downstairs, so I could sit upstairs with just Madeleine CaiQun and pull out that special folder, containing all of the documents I have about my precious girl’s first years. I got out her referral file folder, as well as the other sparse documents and photos we have from her life before us, and she and I sat together, just the two of us, and looked through them all. I read to her the description of her that the orphanage submitted with her file, all the details of her finding spot and what the orphanage officials shared about their impressions of her, what they wrote about the special need with which they had labelled her.

She has, of course, known her story from the beginning of her days with us. We’ve continually sketched out for her a developmentally appropriate outline of it. But this week was the first time we’d put all the pieces entirely together and spelled it all out for her precisely. And it was good. She needs to know, and she deserves to know, and, at almost 8, she’s ready for the details.

After we looked through the artifacts of her history, she and I snuggled in bed with Miranda joining us, too, and she asked me to tell her the whole story of what we know of her life and her coming into our family, from beginning to end, and I did.

She had some questions, as we talked about the particulars, and I answered them as accurately and as kindly as I could. She deserves those gentle, honest answers, and she deserves to have them from me. Her story is hers, and even I do not own its details. It is hers to know and to share as she chooses.

I expect that Matt and I will continue to talk through our girls’ stories with them in the years to come. We are all continually making sense of who we are and from where we came, and adoption adds another layer of complexity to that investigation. I’m proud to walk with my girls on their journeys and hope that I can honor them and their stories now and in the years to come.

Note: As my kids are getting older, we have increasing discussions about their comfort level with information and stories I share on my blog, and Madeleine CaiQun has authorized the sharing of this blog post.

Dream Homes

One evening, as I was scrolling through Facebook, I saw an ad for a house listing. The home looked beautiful – older, 3 stories, brick, and a nice yard. The interior reflected wonderfully done updates. And of course its price is approximately five times the value of our home! There’s no way we’d ever be able to purchase it, but I told Matt and the kids that something like that might be my dream home.

That led to a conversation with the big girls about what their dream homes would be. I treasure those moments – the fun discussions, just learning more about where each child’s heart is and what they would create if they had no constraints. I want to remember more of these sweet conversations, these treasures of children growing older, and so I’m recording this one here as a witness, to look back upon with joy in future years, as well.

This is how Miranda describes her dream house:

It would be a purple castle with 4 large triangular peaks and windows. There would be a ton of windows surrounding so we could see if an enemy was trying to come. There are always lovely dinners served of paprika and for dessert always cupcakes and peep cake. It would have 6 bathrooms with 6 mirrors, one for each person at their appropriate height, 2 sinks, 1 for boys, 1 girls in each bathroom, and 2 shiny purple bathtubs. At the gate there are pink and golden bars, and there is a big pink drawbridge over a big moat filled with peeps that are rainbow colored and pink and white – each peep is a rabbit. The courtyard has a ton of Hatchimals – about 1,000 – and birds and plenty of trees for them to nest in. There are 6 bedrooms. One is purple with a king size and queen size bed for Mommy & Daddy (the beds are connected). One is a blue room with dinosaur and panda wallpaper with small bed with panda blanket and pillows and king size bed with dinosaur blankets and pillows for FangFang and Atticus. One is a rainbow room with pink and white added, too, and My Little Ponies painted all over the wall with bunk beds with My Little Pony sheets and pillows for MeiMei and me. The other 3 bedrooms are for guests. They’re green, blue, and red. There are king size beds in the red room and blue room and a queen size bed in green room. There is also a big living room that is always kept clean with a big pink and purple striped rug, 1 big purple couch and big purple chair for Dad and 10 pillows on the couches (5 each). The other couch is pink. There are 3 pink pillows and 2 purple on the pink couch and 3 purple pillows and 2 pink on the purple couch. There is also a dining room, and there is a kitchen where all the beautiful and wonderful foods are made. There is a playroom with tons of toys – panda toys, peep toys, Hatchimals, My Little Ponies,  and dinosaurs. There are also royal cats – a father, a mother, and 8 kittens. Four kittens are black boys like their father, and 4 are calico girls like their mother.  There are also horses – 1 that can use magic (a unicorn), 1 that can fly (a Pegasus), an alacorn that can use magic and fly, and a “rainbow colored horse that is just normal.” There is a royal sunroom where the cats can go to play, and it’s warm enough for them to use it every single day. There is a royal throne room with 2 gigantic thrones for Mom and Dad, 2 medium thrones on either side for MeiMei and me, beside those are 2 small thrones for FangFang and Atticus. There are tons of paintings all over the castle of pet horses and cats and such other things you might think of like wonderful desserts and meals. And the last room is half a royal nursery and half an eye examining place to see if anyone needs glasses.

Madeleine CaiQun describes her dream home this way:

It is a light pink castle with a light pink wall and a moat and a drawbridge and flowers on the castle wall. The bathroom would have a pretty pink bathtub and mirrors, each at appropriate heights for people to see themselves and a sink for each of the people at their perfect height. There would be 3 bedrooms. One has a big bed with pink sheets for Mommy and Daddy. One is blue and has dinosaur wallpaper and a crib with pandas all over it and a blanket with a big panda face, and the bed has dinosaur pillows and dinosaur blankets. One is purple with 1 huge bed for 2 people with My Little Pony wallpaper and 2 dressers. The bed has My Little Pony sheets and pillows and blankets. The living room has cat wallpaper and couches with cats on them and pink carpet. There is a playroom with My Little Pony wallpaper and pink carpet and shelves with toys. Some toys are My Little Ponies, some are pandas, and some are dinosaurs. For pets, there are 3 cats – one kitten, one mother, one father. There are also a unicorn and Pegasus and an alacorn (unicorn with wings) and a few normal horses whose colors are brown and a rainbow mane with white body. The flowers are pretty – pink, purple, and all the other colors of the rainbow. The wall of the castle has a gate with golden bars.

I love hearing what my kiddos come up with and share, given the opportunity!

Witnessing the Power of Connection

Matt and I have, for years, embraced the parenting philosophy often known as trust-based relational intervention (TBRI) or, to use more commonplace terminology, parenting with connection. One of the tenets of this philosophy relates to the idea that corrective discipline should be designed to teach, not to punish. That part is easy enough to grasp (though sometimes difficult to practice!), but one element of the philosophy that has taken us longer to really understand – and to implement – has been the importance of the work of relationship-building outside of situations of conflict.

If we want our kids to respect us and be willing to work with us when the heat is on, we have to make the investments in our relationships with them ahead of time – not to mention that relationship investment is just a huge part of loving someone. In some ways, we’ve been doing that from day one. Wanting to have relationships with our children is one of the primary reasons we homeschool, and I obviously have a great deal of time with all of our kids during the day. But the fact is that we’re also very task-oriented during much of that time together. During school time we are, obviously, doing school. I take one child with me each week to go grocery shopping, and we do get some good time together while we’re out, but the focus is still on the task of grocery shopping. Honestly, with four kids, it’s hard to make time for pure, individual relational connection, but we’ve known for a while now that it’s important, and we’ve been trying to make time for it. I’ve been doing some one-on-one dates with kids, and I’ve tried to find other opportunities for individual connection (or connection with smaller groups of kids) throughout the day, and that has been so good. Sometimes it looks like asking a child to go choose a book to read together. Sometimes it looks like playing our Teddy Bear Memory game together. Sometimes it looks like letting a child choose something to make with me in the kitchen.

And it has brought me so much joy recently to see growing moments of connection between Matt and our kids and to witness the fruit of his growing pursuit of them. One night, as he and I discussed ways to cultivate empathy in and connect with our big kids, Matt proposed that we start reading through The Chronicles of Narnia with them, as he remembers reading those books as a touchstone of his childhood. As he reads, Madeleine CaiQun curls up next to him, and both girls are so excited for all four of us to be reading these great books together. They’re really into the stories, and they love that connecting time.

And the other day, one of our kiddos was having a difficult time after really working hard on some challenging math concepts. She was totally dysregulated, unable to play well with the other kids, and uninterested in engaging with me or working on her own in any suggestion I made. Matt asked her to come down to the studio and make some artwork with him. Half an hour later, she emerged, totally regulated, with artwork to distribute to everyone as gifts.

We are seeing more spontaneous affection, more willingness to work through periods of dysregulation – and more connection in general. Those moments of investing in relationships with our kiddos are so precious and so important!

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.

On Priorities, Family Teamwork, and Chores

Matt and I have talked a fair amount about our priorities for ourselves and our family, and, as will come as no surprise to anyone who has entered our house ever, having a perfectly organized, always-clean home is just not at the top of the list. I think that at this point in our lives, having 4 children ages 3-7 and homeschooling them all, the choice is really between having a clean house or ever doing anything else at all – and because I’d like to have time to enjoy my husband, enjoy my children, have relationships with other people, occasionally read a book or write a blog post, or really do anything else ever, having a clean house is not a make or break thing.

That said, I do crave order, and it stresses me out when our house is a mess. We’ve always existed in that space of realizing that our house will not be perfectly clean – and being okay with that – but never quite being happy with how it does look on a daily basis. I read an article earlier this year that confirmed for me that this is a real thing – there is a link between stress and clutter. Since then, Matt and I have been slowly but steadily working to de-clutter our house and keep it more organized and clean, and that has been so good. I’ve found a rhythm for more of our household tasks that helps me to stay on top of them without it adding too much strain to my day, and having those routines has been so helpful.

Until a few weeks ago, our children’s contributions to our household tasks had primarily been on an as-requested basis, with the understanding that everyone was to help when asked to do so – and they’d sometimes even volunteer themselves or ask to help with various tasks. The big kids’ only real, routine chores were to (1) help clean up the living room every day after lunch and (2) put away their own laundry. However, we started to get increasing amounts of resistance when we’d ask our big kids to help with various tasks. As I shared recently, one of them whined, when asked to help set the table, that she felt like a slave when I asked her to do things around the house. The increasing resistance was pretty close to crossing my line of necessitating drastic measures, but the comparison of themselves to slaves was a leap far past that line.

Matt and I announced a family meeting, wherein we made a list of all of the household tasks that need to be done in order to keep our home running smoothly, how often those tasks need to be done, and who usually performs them.

Surprise, surprise, the performer of the majority of these tasks was me! We discussed the fact that our family is a team, and as such, it shouldn’t be one person’s job to handle all of the household work, and we asked the big girls to volunteer for jobs they’d like to do. Novelty is a strong motivator, and they each actually chose a number of tasks for which they’d like to be responsible!

I put together a couple laminated sheets, listing out each child’s Family Teamwork Jobs (aka chores) and the days on which they are responsible for those jobs, and we’ve been using that system for almost a month now.

It has made a huge difference. The novelty has worn off, and the complaints have begun, but we have persisted in spite of that. There are very few jobs that even the big kids perform entirely on their own – but they’re still learning how to do each one and getting better at each as we get more experience, and I work with each of them to accomplish what needs to be done, so it’s an opportunity for us to build connection by working together. Additionally, I now have a schedule (and some accountability, in the form of 7-year-olds and their lists) for completing each task, so each one is more likely to be done than when I just waited and hoped for time to tackle it.

We’re seeing increased personal responsibility from our kids, and this is another vehicle to reinforce for all of us that our family is a team, and we work together to accomplish what needs to be done. I do give them some grace (most often when it is helpful for me to do so – i.e. when I just need the dishes to be done without spending 30 minutes doing them), but we largely stick to our schedules, and I think we’re growing as people, growing as a family…and our house is cleaner and more organized! We’re counting it as a win 🙂