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.

Reconnecting with my Kiddos

Parenting always has its ebbs and flows, but we’ve had a rough past couple weeks around here, with one of our children in particular. Some of that has been us, I’m sure – when Matt and I are stressed out or focused on other things, we don’t do as good of a job at parenting, and he’s in the middle of his semester, and I’m working hard on accomplishing everything on my pre-adoption to do list. But some of it was definitely her and for no reason we could discern – perhaps the upcoming changes in our family? Perhaps just a phase? Who knows. It’s been hard, though. I called our social worker and asked for her advice. I asked a few friends to pray for me.

And I’ve upped my connected parenting game. I’ve sought opportunities to say yes. I’ve gotten down on my kids’ level to talk with them. I’ve been willing to work with the girls on compromises that help each of us work toward what’s important to us. I’ve proposed outings to the park just because they would be fun.

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I’ve been putting my phone down more. We’ve been role-playing tough situations. We’ve been having a lot of re-dos. I’ve been doing one-on-one dates with each of my girls.

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And the past week or so has been better, and I’ve been encouraged. It’s been hard work, but it’s worth it. I want to be able to help my kids work through conflict and handle their emotions well, and it’s worth the time it takes to help them learn those skills. And I want us to have good, healthy relationships, and it’s worth the time it takes to build those.

Even in the midst of that context, though, I was shocked by an experience we had this morning. A friend of mine, another adoption mama, is spending a week in Texas at a TBRI (trust-based relational intervention) Practitioner Training, and I’ve been following along with her blog and Facebook posts, hoping to glean any pearls of wisdom that might be helpful to me in parenting our kiddos. She posted yesterday about an example of an “I Love You Ritual.” Matt and I have the book but haven’t drawn on it as much as we probably should have. I pulled up the video to which she linked and watched as parents and children sang to each other, to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, about how precious they are:

Twinkle twinkle little star
What a wonderful child you are
With big, bright eyes and nice round cheeks
A talented person from head to feet
Twinkle twinkle little star
What a wonderful child you are

I watched it a couple times with my kids and then told them I wanted to sing it to each of them. I expected them to think it was corny and get bored and run away. Not so. I was blown away by their responses. Atticus is already picking up on the motions. Miranda stared into my eyes, beaming, soaking up the message. Madeleine CaiQun refused to make eye contact at all – it was too much for her. But immediately after I finished singing to her, she crawled into my lap, curled up, and opened up about some of her fears about our upcoming trip to China. This was a holy morning at our house, my friends.

Dr. Karyn Purvis, who truly helped to bring hope and healing to so many adoptive (and non-adoptive) families and who pioneered so much of the research upon which we draw in our parenting, has a quote that is often repeated in adoption circles – “All children need to know that they are precious, unique, and special, but a child who comes from a hard place needs to know it more desperately.”

I have been underestimating the degree to which my children need to hear that message. I do need to be spending time with them, reading to them, taking them out on dates…but I also need to make sure I’m speaking directly to their hearts with my words and telling them exactly how precious and wonderful they are to me. I have a feeling this song is going to get a lot of air time in our house in the coming days and weeks and months, and I’ll be seeking out other methods of reaching out to nurture their hearts, as well.

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!