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.

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.

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!