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.

This Is Us, Traumaversaries, and the Long View

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sobbed.

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

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

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

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

The answer? Never.

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

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

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

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

And love is not a victory march

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

I needed that reminder heading into this week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book to be Released Next Week: Confessions of an Adoptive Parent

When I posted this photo on Instagram and Facebook, a number of my friends who are foster or adoptive parents (or preparing to be either of those!) commented that they were interested in what the book was all about.

I heard both Mike and Kristin Berry speak back in October at the Refresh Chicago 2017 Conference and was encouraged by their words and by the conference in general, so when they announced that this book was coming out this year, I was honored to be invited to be part of its launch team (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book and the pre-order bonus materials in exchange for my participation in the launch team.) 

The book has a very similar feel to the Refresh Conference – one of its primary aims is to make sure that foster and adoptive parents understand that they are not alone. Mike tells a number of stories from his own experience as a foster and adoptive parent (while still keeping many details of his children’s stories private), which help to communicate that no matter what a family is experiencing, their struggles are not unique. The Berry family has parented children who behaved in unsafe ways with other children, who became pregnant earlier than planned, who have had to be placed in residential treatment facilities for periods of time, whose experiences of trauma directly play into their behavior, and who are not always respectful, kind, mature individuals. No matter what struggle an adoptive or foster parent is walking through, this book will offer reassurance that they are not the only ones.

It’s also very readable – I carried it with me and read it all over the place 🙂

reading while waiting for Miranda’s swim meet to start!

Some of what I found most helpful from the book were the reminders to press on. Berry writes, “So now we have a choice. We can shake our fists at the heavens and say, ‘This wasn’t part of the deal,’ or we can choose to move forward, love our children through the trials, work to understand trauma, and live to the best of our ability in this new normal” (p. 76-77). Probably all of us parents have had moments of wondering whether this life was really what we signed up for, but I appreciated the encouragement to persevere through the hard times. Berry says, “I’ve found that when I stop dwelling on what I wish would have been, and accept what actually is, I find hope quicker” (p. 77).

Reminding us all that there is hope, no matter what, is another of the main points of this book. Part of that is practical encouragement – Berry tells multiple stories of kids and young adults who were making bad choices but whose paths eventually changed, and he offers the reminder that we are all in process, saying, “I didn’t come from a traumatic situation the way some of my kids did, but I still had to journey to where I am today. Twenty years ago I wasn’t able to do what I do today” (p. 187). And another part of this reminder that hope exists is spiritual. Berry writes, “That’s where I find hope – not in the wreckage of this journey, but in the fact that Jesus has willingly entered into our darkest moments and fights with us and for us in the middle of it” (p. 123). And he says, “You and I need to trust the God who created the universe and gave us life, confident that He holds our broken kids in His mighty hands” (p. 188).

Our children are younger, and we haven’t had all of the experiences that the Berry family has. However, we have had our own struggles as parents, and we do see the effects of trauma in our kids’ lives, and not everyone around us understands why we make the choices we do for our family. It’s encouraging to know that there are others out there who do understand this adoption parenting journey. And I appreciated the reminders to have hope and persevere in loving well, even in the midst of hard situations with our kiddos.

If you’re looking for some encouragement in these areas, I’d absolutely recommend the book! And if you pre-order in the next few days, there are some pretty extensive pre-order bonuses, which you can check out here!

Heat Sheets and Sharpies and Crash Rooms, Oh My: Miranda’s First Real Swim Meet!

This past weekend Miranda had her first official swim meet! She started swim team this past fall, and she participated in an intrasquad meet several months ago, but this was her first time participating in a true swim meet. We were all excited but also a little bit nervous 🙂

After talking with her coach, I told her she had the option to swim 1, 2, or 3 races, and she said she wanted to do all 3, so for this first meet she swam 25m freestyle, 25m backstroke, and 25m butterfly races. One thing I love about her head coach is that any time I talk with her, she always has something encouraging to say about Miranda and how much they all enjoy working with her (she does this for all the kids and all the parents). She told me, when I asked her thoughts about which events Miranda should swim, that Miranda had one of the most natural dolphin kicks she’d ever seen, which thrilled Miranda to no end. She hasn’t quite put all the pieces of the butterfly stroke together smoothly yet, but she still loves swimming it so that she can put her dolphin kick to good use!

We had to get there early on Saturday morning – not ideal. Warm-ups started at 6:45, so I got up at 5:10. I am never, ever up at that time. I’ve been battling a cold, too, so it was not fun. But I powered through, and I woke both big girls up at 5:30 so they could get ready. Madeleine CaiQun insisted that she wanted to come early, too, so the three of us left the house in the pitch black darkness of the pre-sunrise hours.

I think Miranda was a bit overwhelmed by the big-ness of everything at the Mizzou pool. She’s used to me being 20 feet away from her for her entire practice, and this was not that. She swam in the pool farther away from the crash room, so she couldn’t even see her coaches or her pool from the crash room door. Parents are technically not allowed to be out on the pool deck…but I may or may not know anyone who, when confronted with the tears of her child, ignored the prohibition and walked out with her anyway.

Miranda is quite enamored with this sharpie-on-arm writing

I love the way everything is structured for these 25m 8-and-under events. They have a “bullpen” – essentially a staging area, where some coaches and volunteers get all of the kiddos lined up in exactly the order in which they need to be so that they can walk out to their lanes and swim. Then there are coaches and officials double-checking that each swimmer is where they need to be before their races begin.

The head coach of Miranda’s team is great about making sure that kids see meets as fun opportunities to improve their own times. No one focuses on rankings or where kids are placing relative to others; it’s all about personal growth.

Miranda swimming her freestyle event

I did look at the rankings, and Miranda finishes toward the bottom in every event, but that’s totally fine 🙂 It was huge to get this first ever big meet under her belt and to swim 3 whole events. Even at the intrasquad she’d only done 1 (backstroke). She improved her backstroke time by almost 4 whole seconds (!!), and she now has established times for freestyle and butterfly.

Miranda swimming backstroke

Matt and I were joking that she could actually shave multiple seconds off of her times if she would take off when the starting sound goes instead of looking around to make sure other swimmers have started first.

Miranda is the “splash” in lane 6, as other swimmers are already well underway 🙂

Honestly, I find it all quite endearing. I love seeing her start out at the beginning and make progress. When she first started swim team, she could make it across one length of the pool doing freestyle and one length doing backstroke, but barely. And now? She routinely swims the length of the pool dozens of times in each day’s practice, and she’s getting faster and better at the mechanics of everything. It’s so neat to see that growth.

And she’s growing in other ways, beyond just her swimming skills, too. She has a little friend she loves to see at swim practice, and she told me she made another friend at this swim meet, because they were in the same heat for their first race, so they had time to chat in the bullpen while waiting for their turn to go out on deck. Giving her a chance to interact with other kids her age and with other adults is a big reason we pursue extracurricular activities, so I’m thrilled to see that she’s starting to feel more comfortable in those areas, as well.

Overall, it was a very good experience. I’m so proud of her for being brave and taking on the challenge of swimming 3 races in a bit meet like this. It was such a fun morning for me, as her mom, to watch and help her through. I hope we’ll have many more fun swim meet experiences coming up in our future!