Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Holy Pity Party, Batman!

I reread my last post.  Oh my word did I sound pathetic!  I guess that is the magic of documenting things in the moment, rather than reflecting on them later.  Time tends to remove some raw edges and cast everything in a soft rosy glow.

I'm happy to report that the quality of life has improved dramatically in the past week.  Praise the Lord for that!  I feel like I am slowly crawling out of my deep pit of self-pity and feeling pretty optimistic that things are on the right trajectory.

Most of the illnesses have passed with just myself, Veronica and Levi having a lingering cold.

Everything gets better with sleep.  Levi has only been waking once or twice a night lately and has been going back to sleep fairly quickly, instead of randomly waking and staying awake for hours.  That alone has made life better.  He still hasn't committed to naps again, even though he would nap in China.  He will take a 15-20 minute power nap and will himself awake.  I know it isn't enough sleep for him because he rubs his eyes fiercely in an attempt to stay awake.  However, I will gladly take this progress. 

He is also figuring out what the word, "No" means.  He is testing the boundaries, as all exploring toddlers should, but he also is finally (sometimes) listening to me when I tell him not to bite the cat or pull the floor lamp onto his head.  I think he might be trying to please me.  Progress!

Attachment has also improved.  He still adores Ben.  (Don't we all!)  He still prefers to go to his Daddy when given the option.  But definite progress has been made. 

All indications show that Levi had been well loved and cared for before he joined us.  His biggest obstacle is not to learn how to attach, but to transfer his attachment from his foster mother to me, his forever mother.  Up till a few days ago, he was willing to get what he needed from me.  He had worked his way up to being comfortable with eye contact, and accepting cuddles, comfort, back rubs, snacks, etc. from me.  When he would get hurt - which seems to be a common occurrence with this daredevil - he sought out my comfort and snuggled in close.  At least as long as my irresistible husband wasn't around. 

The real progress that I have noted in the last few days is that he is not only able to accept the nurturing he needs from me, but he is ready to be reciprocal in his affections.  Instead of stoically looking on as I tickle him, he will laugh a hearty belly laugh.  Instead of simply allowing me to hug him, he will reach out and (usually gently) rub my cheeks and look into my eyes.  Instead of running away from me to do his own thing, he has been running toward me with a smile wanting a little snuggle time with Mommy.

Let me tell you, folks.  This new development has made everything so much more enjoyable!  He is finally starting to figure out that I am not too shabby for a mom.  He is beginning to realize that he can trust me and rely on me.

Now folks have been asking, "Is he attached yet."  I think that is not quite the right way to think about attachment.  Attachment cannot usually be answered as a yes or no question.  There is a continuum.  I can definitely see that we are attaching to each other.  Yup, I had to attach to him just as much as he has to attach to me.  I am pleased with the progress we have made and I have no reason to doubt that our mother-child relationship will continue to improve.  I believe that we can push past any setbacks we experience in the future.  This isn't a smooth road, there are switchbacks, hills, valleys and plateaus. 

Some of you might be wondering what kinds of activities help foster attachment.  I'll share some of the things we have been deliberate about that I believe are helpful. 

1.  Ben and I are the ONLY ones to meet Levi's needs.  If he is hungry, thirsty, sad, poopy, whatever, Ben and I are the ones who deal with it.  We don't let the other children take care of him, either.  If he drops his bottle we won't even allow anyone else to hand it to him.  This means we have not left him in anyone else's care yet, and we don't anticipate doing so for quite some time.

2.  Bottle feeding.  At 17 months, most children are off bottles.  Not Levi.  Granted, with his unrepaired cleft, a special bottle does help him drink, even though I am sure we could probably teach him to drink out of a cup or sippy cup by himself.  We are deliberate about doing a nighttime and nap time feeding while snuggled on the rocking chair, wrapped in a blanket.  This is a chance for sustained eye contact and close comfort.  After the bottle is done, we rock together for a while.  I love, love, love this part of the day.  This helps both of us bond to each other more than just handing him his bottle and having him drink it himself.

3.  Spoon Feeding.  Most toddlers Levi's age feed themselves.  Parents at this age encourage their children to figure out how to use a spoon and fork.  We are not encouraging him to use a spoon yet.  We don't even put it on his tray for him to use.  I have been trying to spoon feed him at least once a day.  Whether it is cereal, applesauce, casserole, etc. I am being very deliberate about having Levi realize that I provide the food.  Spoon feeding does this much more obviously than just dumping things on his tray.  It is also a chance for sustained interaction and natural eye contact.  Other times, he can use his hands to feed himself.

4.  Forced Bonding.  Okay, maybe that isn't the nicest way to put it, but I have instituted what I call "Forced Bonding Time" every afternoon.  When the three big kids are at school and Veronica and Sawyer a napping (and Levi should be!) I put Levi in my side carrier and we play, sing songs, read books, etc.  When he is in the carrier, he can't escape  explore when his interest in me wanes.  For about an hour he has to interact with me or at least snuggle in.  His interest in Forced Bonding was ambivalent at best when I started this, but now he seems to really enjoys this time together and smiles and laughs through it.  After I let him down again, he voluntarily stays close to me and seeks to engage me in playing.  This is not to be confused with the other times I have him in the baby carrier or baby backpack because I need to get things done or I am just tired of chasing him from one death defying adventure to another.  During Forced Bonding Time, I focus solely on him.

It is so nice to be able to see some positive results from the efforts I have been putting forth.  It is such a weird feeling to be waiting expectantly for your child to like you.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Two Week Blur

Here's a glimpse into the early days of an adoption (at least from my two experiences).   Most people are not terribly familiar with this scenario and I have heard many people tell me how much easier it must be to be past the exhausting newborn stage and into the easy part.

Adopting is a lot of wonderful things, but it isn't easy.

 In fact, one of the hardest things about coming home is that people don't always understand how difficult it can be.  Then, I feel like I am in the difficult position of saying things are great (which they are) and utterly physically and emotionally exhausting (which they also are).  When a mom gives birth, people expect this dichotomy of feelings.  People don't always imagine adoption in the same way.

So let me start this post on a positive note. 

I want to thank all the family and friends who have been extraordinary to us during our paper pregnancy, adoption trip, and in this early time home.

Thank you for asking me, "How is the mother-to-be?" during our wait to travel. That was a perfect way to check in and acknowledge that I was just as eager to see my child as if they were growing inside me.  Thank you for oohing and aahhing over pictures of our child while we were waiting.  Thank you for listening to me worry over our child's health and living conditions.  Thank you for taking care of our children while we were gone.  Thank you for driving them to and from various activities.  Thank you for making my parents feel welcome at my kids' schools. Thank you for asking questions, but respecting the fact that we aren't willing to share all of our child's story.  Thank you for bringing over meals to us.  That typical new-baby gesture feels even more special when the adoption is celebrated as much as a birth.


We have been home safely for nearly two weeks.  My apologies to you, faithful readers, for not being more on top of the whole blog thing.

I could have blogged about how smoothly our consulate appointment went in Guangzhou.  I could have written about the "joys" of a 16 hours in a plane on a very long day home.  I could have posted about how the kids were immediately taken with their new little brother and how he was equally entranced with the five little people admiring him.

But I didn't.

I didn't because things have been rough.  Not with Levi specifically.  He is cute and wonderful and silly and adjusting well to the family.  What has been most challenging is our lack of sleep.

Adding a child to the family always involves disrupted sleep, whether the child is added via adoption or more traditional routes.  I've been to this rodeo before.   I expected to be bucked off my sleep routine.  But this has been pretty brutal.

Most people are familiar with the needs of a newborn - either through experience or word-of-mouth gossip about middle of the night feedings.  I know.  It's tough.  I've been through it four times. 

But I will maintain that adoption sleep deprivation is harder, at least for me.  What you don't always think about is that this new child is frightened and feeling pretty vulnerable.  Everything is different and scary, including his or her new parents.  Often children are hyper vigilant, fighting sleep.  Top that off with sleeping someplace unfamiliar and you have a child who is needing a lot of comfort and reassurance in the middle of the night.

Newborns can sleep anywhere.  Once they are asleep, they usually stay sleeping for two or three hours at least.  But when you have an uber alert, recently adopted toddler monitoring for danger even when (especially when?) trying to sleep, they need to have you there RIGHT NOW when their eyes flutter open.  Once worked up into a crying jag at night, they can't be comforted with a clean diaper and nursing session and off to bed like a newborn.  Instead, the parent comforts as best they can, not knowing of the child will be awake for the next 10 minutes or 10 hours.

The days aren't much of a break, either.  This isn't a newborn who can be set down on a blanket, in a crib, in a baby swing, anywhere really and be expected to stay.  Toddlers are explorers.  Its their job.  They should be looking in every nook and cranny, pulling stuff down off shelves and figuring out their new world.  That doesn't mean that a mommy doesn't have to keep a close eye on all this investigation to make sure Little Sweetums doesn't eat something out of the garbage, yank kitty around by her collar, or bash the window with a metal truck.

If a newborn is fussing and wants to be close to Mommy, baby carriers are great.  You can wear that tiny little person without much exertion.  (Unless you had a c-section.  That can cause its own set of challenges).  When you are hauling around the equivalent of three average sized infants, your body can get plum tired now and again.

Toss in a big ol' hunk of jet lag (14 hours difference!) and its a recipe for exhaustion.  Remember folks, The parents and new child are jet lagged.  The other children are not.  And life goes on.  Children need to go to school.  Doctor's appointments need to be attended.  Birthday parties need to be planned.

Once the jet lag was nearly finished, Ben, Levi, myself and a couple of other of the kids got sick and are still sick.  

Even exclusively nursing mothers can call in the reinforcements.  During a rough spell, mothers, sisters, friends can come over to help watch your children.  They can hold your tiny baby and hand the sweet smelling bundle to you when they are clean and dry so all you need to do is stick them on your breast for 30 minutes and get back to a much needed nap.  Even if you had to pay for a babysitter, nanny, or baby nurse, for a week, you could get your mojo back pretty quick.

When adopting, though, for attachment reasons, the parents should be the only ones to feed the child, comfort the child, and provide any care like bathing, diaper changing, etc. for the child.  So kiss that help good-bye.  Add in the fact that, unlike a newborn, this child has been through a lot of trauma and loss and isn't always interested in being helped by you.  Newborns don't throw tantrums.

I haven't written this blog post to vent about my situation.  Okay, I'll be honest.  I'll take a smidge of pity. I know things will get easier once Ben and I catch our groove and get in sync with the new rhythms of family life with our six kids.  The joys are going to soon overshadow the struggles.  Days will demand less energy as everyone settles into a new normal.

What I mainly wanted to do was enlighten you, dear readers, about the reality of the first days home after an adoption.

Not everyone is called to adopt (although I think there are many of you out there who would be spectacular adoptive parents if you are willing to take a leap of faith), but I do believe many of you want to be a support for those who do.

So what can you do?

     Show the new family the same level of interest and enthusiasm that you would show to a pregnant woman or a newborn.

     If this is the family's first child - offer to host a baby shower. 

      Recognize that the family may need to limit visitors and outings in the first few months home (more so than if the child was born to them)

     Don't offer unsolicited parenting advice, especially about discipline, setting boundaries, etc.  When fostering attachment and helping a child through the trauma of losing everything they had previously known, some of the standard parenting practices aren't always the best.

     Help the parents foster attachment by not sneaking treats to the child or trying to hold them.  They may go to you and you might find it endearing, but the child needs to first rely on his or her parents and not "mommy shop" for anyone who might take care of him.

     Offer to drive siblings to events or home from extra curricular activities if you are already picking up your own child.

     Make a fuss over the siblings.  Especially in trans-racial adoption, the adopted sibling tends to get a lot of attention.  Try to help the child's brothers and sisters feel special in their role.

     Don't be offended if the parents don't answer personal details about their child's background.  If they want you to know, they will tell you.  Especially don't ask "Why did their mom give them away" in front of the child.  Or ever.  It is just rude. 

   Bring over a casserole.  Really.  The family will love you forever.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Guanghzhou Safari Park

We had a free day in Guangzhou, so our group decided to go on an adventure together.  Several people said that the Safari Park just outside the city was really good, so we decided that would be the place to go.

All those people who said this zoo was good lied.

It was so far beyond good, I can't even think of the right superlatives to properly describe this place.  It was one of the most amazing places I have ever been.  The absolute only thing that could have made it better was if my other five children would have been able to experience it with us.  And maybe there would have been western style toilets and not squatty potties.  So I guess those are the only two things that could have made this day better.

There is no way, due to probably well thought out laws and safety standards, we could have had this same experience anywhere else.  I mean, I personally fed a White Bengal Tiger for goodness sake!

Honestly, I had to look at the photos afterward to be sure I really remembered things correctly.  Here's a sample of some of the things we did and saw.

Levi's ready to see some animals at the start of our adventure

We rode a little, open air, touristy train around the drive only portion of the zoo.  This trip lasted 30 minutes.  After this ride was done, I didn't think the day could go better, but I was so wrong.  It got even better.  Yes, Levi snuggling with me helped make the trip pretty great.

The only thing separating this zookeeper from certain death by hippo is a really narrow trench.  There were no fences or glass enclosures in this part of the zoo.

These pictures aren't zoomed in much.  There was another narrow trench preventing this rhino from impaling us to death.  I forgot to upload the pictures of the tiger area (hopefully I will get to it soon).  There was a ditch that looked to be only about six feet wide separating us from death by tiger, which I have decided upon very close inspection would be a lousy way to die.  I have seen enough nature shows to know that they should have been able to pounce from one of their perches and leap over that divide.  I think they were fed enough to think that eating my family wasn't worth the effort. 

There was actually nothing separating us from this bad boy.   No fence, no ditch, no trench, not even a line drawn in the dust, from what I could see.  He and his buddies were almost close enough to spit on.  No, I did not actually try to spit on them.  That is a figure of speech.  I believe this animal could probably kill me, too, but after being so close to lions, tigers and bears (oh my!) I felt safe enough that I could have plopped a saddle on this guy and rode him around rest of the park.

We left the awesome train of potential death and were ready to walk around the park.

No, that happy cartoon tiger wasn't lying.  We had the option of feeding a White Tiger a few pounds of meat for the cost of 10 Yuan.  That is less than $2 US dollars.  You better believe we did it!  Unfortunately, we only have video of the actual throwing of several hunks of raw meat (which I am not sure how to upload here in China).  Trust me.  It was awesome.

Yeah.  I tossed some meat over an apparently narrow trench to this tiger and her buddies.  Because my aim is apparently better than Ben's, I got it near the tiger.  I didn't accidentally smack it in the back with a chicken chunk like Ben.  I am not saying I was better at throwing tasty morsels to top of the food chain carnivores.  I am just letting you know what happened.  

For 15 Yuan (less than $3 US dollars) we could feed giraffes.  (Perhaps Ben's forte is feeding herbivores?)  This is not Photoshopped.  He really is that close to the giraffe. 

For 10 Yuan (less than $2 US dollars) you could feed bananas to elephants.  I had already tossed 4 bananas when Ben took this picture.  I was awfully excited about this as elephants are my favorite animal.
Not long after feeding the elephants, we came to a place where they were giving elephant rides!  For about $12.50 per person we got to ride on an elephant. It was so exciting at first.  Then, it got a little too exciting as it felt like we were leaned dangerously over to Ben's side of the animal.  Once we were already partially through the ride I realized I didn't take a close look as to how firmly in place the chair was.  I had visions of being the first adoptive parent to die by pachyderm in China.  In retrospect, I probably should given a faint glimmer of a thought to safety before climbing onto the back of a multi-ton animal, but it was such an awesome ride.

Because this was China, I figure I had to post a picture of a Panda Bear.  How is it possible that seeing a rare Panda was anti climactic to the rest of the day?  By the time we got around to the Panda enclosure, the fact that it was sitting 5 feet away with no fence obstructing my view wasn't enough.  If I couldn't feed it or reach out close enough to touch it, my enthusiasm barely registered.  Most of you know how enthusiastic I usually am, so that just goes to show how high the bar was set  by all our animal encounters earlier in the day.

I don't think I could have planned the day to go better.  We had wonderful adventures in great weather with a couple of nice families.  What a great break from the stress of adoption appointments.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Batman Parenting

Have you ever felt like Batman when you are a parent?  Batman has all the cool gadgets that let him thwart any difficulty that comes his way.  So I have been thinking about what my own child raising/adoption trip must haves are.  Here are some (in no particular order)

Our last day in Shanxi province.  This was in the Wanda Vista hotel lobby.
*  Earplugs - Yup.  I'm going out on a limb here and admitting that I have shoved some earplugs in on more than one occasion on this adoption trip.  I can still hear the screaming, but it sure does take the edge off the high pitched shriek that makes my ears ring.  Every parent out there knows that exact pitch and decibel that kills off the cilia in whichever ear is closer to the screaming child.

I've posted here before that Levi has been grieving hard.  He still has his sad times (especially around nap time) but he's getting more comfortable.  Now, instead of just struggling and wanting to push me away, he is seeking me out for comfort most times.  When he is simultaneously crying so close to my ear I get drool drops in it and still reaching out for comfort, earplugs are like the performance enhancing drug of endurance parenting.

*  Baby Carrier - With a distinctive lack of seat belts in China, I delude myself into thinking having Levi semi-securely attached to my side will keep him safe from the indecipherable traffic. 

Most importantly, the close proximity is one of the top ways to foster attachment.  The more I think about it, the more it feels a bit like enforced Stockholm syndrome.  You know, where the kidnap victims start to empathize with their captors?

Seriously, though, all of the forced physical togetherness is leading to more emotional togetherness, both for Levi and me.  It isn't a popular sentiment to admit, but sometimes the beginning days of adoption feel more like babysitting than regular family time.  Until you develop that parent-child language that is unique to just you and your child, things just aren't always that easy.  I love Levi, just like I love all my children.  But I don't really "know" him yet.

I love the idea of him, the potential of him, what I know of him already.  But we don't have an easy kind of relationship yet - the kind where I know what will set him off and what he will love.  We are both still trying to figure each other out.  He is alternately sweet, silly and seeking out affection and wary, cautious, and belligerent.  He is still figuring out if he can trust me.  He is still trying to decide if it is okay to love this new Mom.  He is still standing with one foot firmly with his past family and one tentatively tiptoeing into his new life with his new family.  Ambiguity is a difficult place to be.

*  A Great Husband - You've all heard me say it before, and I'll say it again.  I could never be the mother to six children without an amazing husband who doesn't just "help out" but is a truly equal co-parent.  He is the reason, at the difficult adoption/parenting moments I can laugh instead of cry.  Maybe he should be upgraded from nifty Batman gadget to my Robin.  He doesn't wear tights, though.

At Levi's immigration medical appointment.  A sweet woman (bless her heart) said that Levi looked like me. 

*  Diaper bags - When you live in a hotel room for weeks, you need scented diaper bags to wrap up the nastiness till housekeeping comes - especially when we forget to remove the "Do Not Disturb" sign and our room isn't cleaned for days. 

*  A Good Camera - All this time, I assumed I was a bad photographer.  We recently got a good Canon camera, and even I can't mess up the pictures.  To finally be able to capture some of these great moments is a wonderful feeling. 

*  God - Last but certainly not least, there is no way I could do any of this crazy parenting stuff without knowing God's got my back.  How in the world could make it through the tough parts, the tiring parts, the heartbreaking parts, without God to see me through it?

Drooling up a storm in the Victory hotel play area.

At the outside patio of the Victory hotel.