Being a Child Again

IMG_1277When Addie and Palmer first came home from Africa, we had to teach the kids a “boo-boo” routine. When they got hurt, we had to teach them that they needed to come to us, sit on our lap, let us oooo and ahhh over their injury, no matter how minor, kiss it and let them sit with us until they felt comforted.

We had to teach Addie and Palmer to need us. To seek comfort from us. To ask us for help.

DSCN0022Without such instruction, they were daredevils who felt no pain. They would scale tall structures fearlessly, fall and hit their heads, or ride their bikes into spectacular crashes, and they would merely get back up, go back to what they were doing, and pretend it didn’t hurt. It was particularly frightening watching Addie, who had rickets and osteoporosis, play recklessly. Palmer had even more of a wild streak — taking off his training wheels and jumping his bike over curbs — the very first day he learned to ride.

2012-01-12 13.25.38Because they had been in an orphanage with minimal adult influence, and even less compassion, they had learned to fend for themselves. Even before they were in the orphanage, the kids were remarkably independent. Addie was still young enough to not have achieved premature adulthood in the Congo, but Palmer would go shopping by himself, go to work, and care for younger siblings when he was no more than 6. We tease that he seems like a little old man, because he especially learned independence at a very early age.

2012-01-12 13.33.41We have had to teach Palmer to be a child again. We had to teach him to ask for help.

This Christmas season, God has been teaching me about humility. The most difficult part of the missionary journey for us has not been the thought of giving up our possessions, learning new languages, giving up clean running water, or living at the edge of a desert. It’s not risking our health and security in a more primitive part of the world. It’s not sharing Christ’s love with Muslims, treating AIDS patients, or moving to a brand new field where we will be alone as the first Global Partners missionaries.

The most difficult part of our missionary journey is asking for help.

Ken and I have three master’s degrees between the two of us. We have diversified our skills so we would always be employable. We have lived with no extended family nearby to depend on for our entire marriage. The vast majority of holidays: Just the two, or now four, of us. Our first objection to going to the mission field was that we didn’t want to have to be dependent on others. Yet in The Wesleyan denomination, missionaries raise all of their salaries and living expenses, plus their operating and administrative expenses. If God wasn’t so clear on what He wanted us to do, we wouldn’t have even started the process.

But He is clear. He spoke through our children, He healed my lungs, He showed us first-hand how our skills would meet the needs of the Ghanaian and French-speaking people of Africa.

God is teaching us to be children again. He is teaching us to ask for help.

We are asking for people who will partner with us in prayer by making a prayer commitment here (Yes, we need you to sign up!), and for people who will partner with us financially in faith promises or donations. We cannot go until we are 100% funded and supported in prayer. At this point, we are at less than 10% for each, and have many opportunities for people to invest, not in what we are doing in Ghana, but what God is wanting to do in Ghana through us. Moving to Ghana, ministering to pastors, healing the sick, and teaching others about the good news of Christ is simply too big for only four people to do on their own. What God is doing in Ghana is so amazing, we know that He is calling hundreds of others to be a part of what He is doing there as well. We are called to go, even more are called to send.

This Christmas season, I am putting into practice what God has been teaching me, as I humbly ask you to consider partnering with us to be a part of our sending team, doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves — be one of 400 prayer partners, and be a part of our financial partnership team. We are not asking you to give what you feel what you can afford, but asking you to give what you feel God is asking of you. We’d love to have you on our team!

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Normal

The one-year-home anniversary was met with, as is typical in international adoption, a mild freak-out by the kids. Lost focus, disruptive behavior at school, resistance to authority.  You know, the usual.

And then, it stopped.

The kids are now getting high grades at school, coming home with good behavior reports (except for one who is chatty, ahem), cleaning their plates and their rooms, learning their memory verses, reading books without being told.

They are bickering over opinions (in English!), playing “I Spy With My Little Eye,”  and love playing board games because they can now count and know their colors. They love swimming, snuggling with the dogs, hate bedtime, and can’t get enough of Leave It to Beaver.

Our lives are becoming surprisingly, well, normal.

No one has tried to jump out of the car at 45 miles an hour, refused to ask to get down from the table for 90 minutes, spit food at me, or purposely peed on furniture in a pretty long time.

It’s almost like we’re, well, normal.

The only time I feel not-so-normal is when talking with other parents of biological children. While others worry about play date partners, getting a pet, or screen time, we are working through issues of death, abandonment, starvation, child labor, and violence from our children’s past. As our kids master increasing amounts of the English language, they can now communicate that their past is anything other than what would be considered normal in first world countries. Their previous life is almost surreal. I don’t know what it is like to parent a “normal” child.

And yet they giggle at squirrels, are engrossed by the symphony, and play like they have not a care in the world. As if all that had happened to them was, well, normal.

Will our children ever escape the chains of their past? How can we facilitate healing of wounds that are so deep?

I don’t know why God chose Ken and I to be the parents of children with so many wounds. I feel so inadequate in many ways. But the truth is, I don’t have to be adequate, because He is. As much as I love Addie and Palmer, I am not their Redeemer. Jesus is. And I get the joy of walking down the road toward the Ultimate Healer with them.  I don’t pretend to comprehend the mysteries of God’s grace and healing. I’m glad I don’t have to. Somehow, our prayers intertwined with the Holy Spirit’s intercession combined with the unmerited favor God has granted is healing the wounds of our children’s past. We listen to the kids, we give permission to grieve, and sometimes we just cry for them because they have no more tears left to cry.

I suspect if things were ever really “normal,” we would never know the deep dependence on God we’ve experienced in the last year.

Hairable Experience

I’ve been blessed with several black female friends who, when they found out I was adopting a black girl, issued me  a challenge: “You have to take care of her hair.”

Of course, I thought. Wouldn’t all mothers take care of their little girl’s hair?

Clearly I was naive as to the depth and complexity of the hairable world of hair of little black girls.

Long before I met Addie, I was introduced to the blog-bible of Caucasian mothers who have adopted black girls, “Chocolate Hair, Vanilla Care.” I began to study at the feet of the author, who  taught lessons of cowashing, shingling, plaiting, and carrier oils. It would take months to read and understand her years of experience and wisdom. I’m not quite there yet.

Out of all the hairstyles I studied, I decided that the one I liked best was just a natural Afro.  I so hoped that Addie’s hair would be ringlets that would be naturally suited for a cute curly Afro!

When I first met Addie, her head had just been shaved days before. Apparently, lice was common in the orphanage, so the children’s hair was regularly shaved. I would have much rather dealt with lice than a year of, “Why is your little boy wearing all pink?”  I was so sad for Addie’s shaved head, but as her hair grew, I realized that it was growing into perfect tiny spiral curls. I was elated that my little girl would have beautiful perfectly ringlet-ed natural hair.

Fast forward 10 months.

My bathroom closet looks like a drug store clearance rack — a hodgepodge of products — conditioners, detanglers, moisturizers, curl activators, frizz tamers and on and on. We’ve experimented with a dozen different products in different combinations, and all with the same results: Addie’s hair looks adorable when she walks out the door, and like a rat’s nest when she walks back in.

I realized that I needed to call in backup.

So I met recently with two of my black female friends to discuss the trials of the hairable world of little black girls.

They assured me I would do fine. Yeah right.

I explained that after trying to do “natural hair,” I am waving a flag of defeat and trying to do something different with Addie’s hair. “But my problem is that I can’t find anyone who does black little girls’ hair. I’ve Googled numerous terms and can’t come up with anyone.”

Both of my friends laughed. “Oh, you don’t Google these folks. At least no one good. You have to have to find them by word-of-mouth.”

So I asked them for a reference. One decided to give me the name of someone she had recently used and that person’s cell phone number.  “Candice. 555-1212.*”

“There’s only a first name here,” I remarked. “Can I have her last name?”

“Oh, there are no last names in black women’s hair. But tell her that Shari Jarvis* with the Senegal twists gave you the number and tell her your story.”

“Gotcha,” I replied. “Where is her salon located?”

“No, no, no,” she chided. “You ask her to do it ‘on the side,’ and she’ll come to your house to do Addie’s hair. It’s actually even cheaper that way.”

She was speaking my language. I proceeded with my line of questioning. “So if I like a black woman’s hair, can I ask her what products she uses in her hair?”

“Nope, that’s a secret.”

“So, I can’t ask who does someone’s hair, or what products they use, but recommendations are all word-of-mouth?

“Exactly.”

“What if I were to do her hair myself? I’ve seen this great website that shows me how to do Bantu knots, cornrows, and extensions.”

They assured me that extensions were beyond my scope, but I could probably attempt something more simple. By this time, I was starting to get nervous about having anything to do with Addie’s hair. They reminded me that she had to sleep in a satin sleep cap with a satin pillowcase. Be careful about her rubbing her head against the car seat, and make sure she doesn’t play with her hair.

They also reminded me that they themselves were thankful that they had boys and never had to deal with the hairable experiences of dealing with the complexity of little girl hair. Very reassuring.

So Sunday night, I attempted to put Bantu knots into Addie’s hair, but I soon realized that her hair wasn’t long enough, so I quickly switched to comb coils. The rest of the night wasn’t so quick. THREE  HOURS LATER, I finished my first hairstyle on Addie, with no small amount of whining. Addie didn’t enjoy it much either. (Ain’t nobody got time for ‘dat!)

How long will it last? I’m told that many styles will last for 2-3 weeks, which is 2-3 days in Addie time.

When I picked up Addie from day camp today, the black woman sitting at the entrance table complimented me on Addie’s hair.

“I really had no idea what I was doing, so it means a lot to me that you say that,” I replied.

“Are you kidding me? I have no idea how to do that!” she replied.

“Oh, it wasn’t too hard. Maybe I’ll be able to put you in touch with some people . . . once I know you a little better.”

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* Identifying information has been changed to protect the innocent.

Well, Look at You

You’re still here!

Let’s see if I can sum up the last 2 months . . .

We have now been home from the Congo for 10 months. Our kids are both now speaking in sentences, with Palmer completely comprehensible. Addie speaks with enthusiasm, although we’re never quite sure about what.

Addie finished educational testing. She now qualifies for speech and occupational therapy and will get an IEP. They say that they are still a little baffled by her because she has mastered more advanced skills for which she doesn’t have the basics. (She can hop on one leg for over a minute, but she cannot stand on one leg. This sort of thing happens academically too.) She has completely caught up with her gross motor skills. If you had seen her try to run or climb stairs in the first month she was home, you realize how miraculous this is. We hope to make similar progress in other areas, but it’s beginning to look like Addie is always going to need some extra help.

Palmer finished out the school year with a top award from the school: The Triple A Achiever for the overall school — academics, attitude, and attendance. He won a huge giant green frog stuffed animal. He still is behind his classmates, but his teacher recognized that his effort to try to catch up was remarkable. The first day after school ended, he begged to continue to work on schoolwork. So we’re working through some online learning programs with both of them, and have enrolled them both in a summer academic enrichment camp. Today was their first day, and they loved it.

Part of me wrestles with how much the kids have to do and work at. Not only the last year of school, when they both skipped a grade, but the 6 and 8 years prior to that when no one introduced them to numbers, or read them bedtime stories, or made sure their toys weren’t tainted with lead. They didn’t get the benefit of learning the language they are being educated in until they got to America. There are a million snuggly, enriched, carefully crafted moments that our kids missed out on. They have to make up for lost time. They have told us so many stories that make me shudder — and they don’t even know that all kids didn’t grow up the way they did. So sometimes they struggle with sitting still, or recognizing social cues, or trusting us as parents. I’m thankful for all the people in their lives who give them the extra grace that they missed out on the first 6 and 8 years of their lives.

I’ve now received my third injection of Xolair. I still have the same yucky cough, but my fever is better. My cough almost went away in the last few weeks, and then I had a bad weekend and it’s back. They say I should start noticing a difference in how I feel after month 3. I’m still waiting for the $10,000 worth of treatment to kick in. Most of the time, I feel okay. Some of the time I feel plain awful, and I still get random infections. Case in point: on Addie’s 7th birthday, I woke up with a raging case of bacterial conjunctivitis. I’ve never seen anything like it. My eye was swollen shut and goopy, fever, nausea, vomiting. But a little girl only turns 7 once. (Well, actually that might not be the case for Addie, ahem.) Anyway, so I pretended to be well for an hour that evening  because I didn’t have the energy to actually make any food, and we went to a dark Rainforest Café Restaurant and ordered the VOLCANO! for dessert. On the way back to the car, Addie asked me why my eye was gross. Because I like to do things really special for your birthday, Addie, like get a facially mutilating infection and appear in public. Isn’t that what every 7 year old girl wants for her birthday?

Addie and Palmer were presented for dedication in church at the end of April. While we’ve always recognized them as God’s children, we had to wait for a time for our kids to trust us enough to allow us to present them in front of the church. Given some of the things they have experienced in the past, this was pretty scary for them, but they did great! My parents flew out from Oregon, and my Aunt Nettie came down from Kentucky, making it all the more special.

Both kids played Upward soccer this spring and both did very well. Addie was quite good, in spite of the fact that she really only learned to run less than a year ago. Palmer excels at soccer, and now that he actually comprehends the rules of the game, he has been able to combine his skills with strategy and is a force to be reckoned with on the field.

Somewhere in the midst of all of this academic testing, award-winning, injection-receiving, relatives- having-in, soccer-playing, and infection-getting, I was promoted to the Director of our PA Program. I still have mixed emotions about this. On the one hand, what an honor! On the other hand, I’m drowning in work. We’ve had three and a half administrative faculty leave this year due to illness, retirement, family issues, etc. and I have a enormous task of taking on much of their jobs, delegating when I can, but most of it just has to be done by me. In the past fourish weeks, I have filmed a baccalaureate video, redesigned and edited the student handbook, coordinating a hooding ceremony, said good-bye to two employees, hired a new faculty member, helped coordinate our program’s first ever-indoor graduation because the outdoor one got rained out, took 11 students to an awesome conference in Atlanta about serving the poor through healthcare and debriefed them, written a magazine article, reworked our ACLS/PALS courses with a new team of instructors from out-of-state, conducted a two day orientation for new PA students who just started classes last week and managed the process of getting them started in a new Program, took part in alumni board meeting, negotiated a new position for our Program and the clinic for which I hope to be hiring soon, helped work on a neighborhood restoration project, staff a 12 week class exclusively with guest lecturers and an overseeing adjunct, continued to see patients in the clinic, negotiated several contracts for student software purchases, finished putting together and submitting a 116 page accreditation document with 28 supporting documents, and many other things that fill the spaces in between. And we are just getting started on the busiest time of year. Things are hard now, but they are going to be oh so good when we can catch up, adjust to the changes, and move forward with confidence that this is exactly what God had in mind. I know it seems a little crazy — to me too– but God has spoken to me about not wasting a vision, and how many examples scripture holds of God calling the weak and unsure so that only He would be glorified. I’m excited to see where God is leading. And slightly overwhelmed.

Ken just finished up his second year of Upward Sports. Last year, Ken worked 5 nights a week. This year, he worked 4. That’s in addition to working Saturdays and Sundays. Trying to balance that much work on the part of both of us has been exhausting. Ken and I almost never have a day off together, and barely have any evenings together. Those projects like: cleaning the basement, taking the kids to a museum as a family, sorting the junk mail, visiting friends who live out of town, or spending a day lounging in pajamas never happen. Add to the equation two new kids with some very unique needs, my illness and work challenges, and we are just . . . broken. It’s hard enough to do everything if both of us had “normal” jobs, but with nearly opposite schedules we needed a change. As God-honoring as both our jobs are, I don’t believe that God is honored when our fragile family is being stretched so thin. Yes, our kids are resilient, but haven’t they also had to deal with more then their fair share already? So Ken asked to take a salary cut and go part-time. And fortunately, the church said yes. It was a very painful — and costly — decision. Honestly, had it been me (the wife) going part-time, I don’t think it would have been as controversial, but I have benefits and salary that could absorb Ken going part-time. The opposite wasn’t true. We needed a new plan to make our family function more healthfully. So we’re tightening our belts and giving Ken working part-time a try.

So that’s the latest from our family, and a bit of an explanation of why we’ve been silent. I haven’t had a Saturday off since April, and my evenings have been packed as well, and I’m just starting a new semester. I hope that one day, things will slow down for us, but for now, we are continuing to trust in God’s guidance for our lives personally, and as a family.

Here are some photo highlights from the last 2 months . . .

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Third World Kids in a First World Family

Adoption of older children is always challenging. Adopting older children from another culture results in some frankly bizarre situations. Lately, our kids came home with a very exciting story about how at school, they were told to put their heads down and put their hands over their heads. “It was a tomato drill!” they exclaimed.

Much of our children’s history is still a mystery to us. Stories are slowly coming, but the difference between truth and fiction is hard to discern, especially knowing their deep desire to protect their past. The clouded memories of childhood are fading quickly into a mixture of wishful thinking of how things should have been and denial of what really happened.

What were they like as infants? Where did that scar come from? How can they come with the same history and have such different capabilities, nutritional status, and memories? What happened to them before they landed at the doorstep of an orphanage in Kinshasa?

We will likely never really know.

As we’ve been getting to know our kids from a completely different culture, I’ve appreciated that there are so many wonderful things that their culture has instilled in them. There’s always a fear of taking a child out of another culture that they will lose some important sense of self, the values of their culture, etc. But at the same time, leaving children in orphanages in third world countries just for the sake of “maintaining their culture” is hardly the answer either. There must be a careful balance of maintaining the best parts of their culture with the nurturing only a family can provide.

Here are some of the things I appreciate and want to preserve about my children’s culture:

1. Their appreciation for “real” food. When given a choice between a french fry and fresh fruit, the kids will typically pick fresh fruit every time. They LOVE water and milk. They never leave the table without drinking every drop. Every grain of rice is cleaned off a plate. Meat– and especially fish–is a real treat.  They didn’t really like candy very much when they came to America — they much preferred meat or bread. We didn’t offer them candy often, but they would refuse it more often than not. This is in stark contrast to what happens today in their new American lives. Almost every day, they come home with candy or candy-like treats. Do I take candy from my children? Heavens, yes! We didn’t even participate in Halloween, and we didn’t give them candy for Christmas or Valentine’s day, but we still have a never-ended supply of candy in a jar on our counter that we’ve confiscated from them. We find bags of candy stashed away in their toy drawers, in their backpacks, and stuffed around their car seats. They actually do like candy now, and I feel like the Candy Police trying to preserve their appreciation for real foods.  It seems like Americans give candy to kids for every occasion, and especially as a reward for good behavior. We should not wonder why children are developing Type II diabetes. We started giving it to them when sugar replaced love and praise.

2. Their lack of dependence on technology. Our kids do not play video games. Out of a moment of desperation, Ken showed Palmer how to play Angry Birds shortly before Christmas, and it became immediately apparent that video games were not a good thing for our kids. The addictive and absorptive nature of technology was unhealthy and unnecessary.

While there are some very good learning apps, I’m sure, I teach the first generation to be raised on technology-dependent education, and I can see the pitfalls. There have been some very interesting studies about how technology-dependent learners can learn more, but they think less. They can memorize lots of bits of information, but truly struggle when trying to put it all together. They have never had a college lecture without Powerpoint, so they have a hard time teaching themselves capture significant information, draw diagrams, pull information out of textbooks. But this is how real-life critical-thinking occurs. It’s not linear and spoon-fed.

I want my kids to learn to read real books, have real conversations, play board games, make forts in the living room, ride bicycles, and play hide and seek. They have an amazing ability to entertain themselves without technology “stuff.” I like that their culture has given them imaginations and a strong desire for physical exercise every day. To introduce them to the “stuff” of the technological world seems contradictory to what we are trying to accomplish in establishing bonds as a family. They haven’t had technology before, so they do not have a sense of what they are missing. And I’m thankful for that. They will have plenty of time to gain computer skills. Wii controller skills are even further down on the list.

3. Their dependence on God to provide. This one probably scares me the most. Let’s be honest, in our culture, we don’t “need” God much. We know where our next 7 days worth of food are coming from. Even the homeless and jobless population in our city can get 3 free meals a day, 7 days a week. Contrast this to the culture where our kids come from where parents and children alternated days eating. That’s right. Not everyone could eat every day, so they switched off. Kids eat one day, parents eat the next. And not three meals a day. One meal every other day. This was NORMAL for the culture. Their homes were collections of refuse strapped together that would hopefully keep the rain out. Every drop of water was a gift. Clean water was a treasure. Running water, unimaginable. Shoes were worn until they disintegrated. They slept in the same clothes they played in. They shared a bed with 5 other children. They sang worship songs without a full band and coordinating Powerpoint with reflective backgrounds.

We bought our kids some $2.95 shoes at Children’s Place a couple of weeks ago, and Palmer brought them home, looked in his closet and said, “Mommy, I have too many shoes.” So together, we chose shoes from his closet that he could give to children who don’t have any.  Oh, how I always want him to remind me that we have more than enough.

In our culture, I think we often have to create need for God because we have so much. Too much. I continually find myself asking: what am I doing that would be impossible to do without reliance upon God? I always want there to be an immediate answer. In America, during the season of Lent, we identify with our Lord’s suffering by giving up things like fast food, forks, and Facebook. Our children come from a culture where dependence on God doesn’t have to be so manufactured.

4. Their love for work. They love to spread mulch. Cleaning the bathroom? Better than watching cartoons. They bicker over who gets to vacuum. There is crying if one child gets to do a chore, but the other does not have a comparable one to do. Sometimes I run out of chores for them to do. I know that child labor is a real problem in the Congo, but that very strong work ethic is amazing. I’m very torn about this. They know the satisfaction of working until their muscles are sore and they collapse into sleep out of exhaustion rather than boredom. They are much better behaved when they are busily productive in the life of our family.

And no, you may not borrow them to clean your house.

At first, I wanted to undo much of what our kids had experienced: too much deprivation, too much work, not enough fun. But I’ve come to realize that they are in some ways very blessed to have had the experiences that they have had. They appreciate good food, because they know what it is like to be hungry. They like to work, because they have been too malnourished to have the energy. They know what it’s like to praise God out of poverty rather than excess. They value trust because they know how much it hurts when promises are broken.

I worry that giving them the excesses of American culture will promote spiritual poverty.

My children are living Beatitudes. They are beauty from ashes. They are resilient in ways that they shouldn’t have to be. They have brought just as much to our family as we have brought to theirs. And we are thankful for the culture they carry with them and how they teach us more about Him every day. Thank you, Lord, for bringing Third World Kids into our First World Family.

Palmer did this matching game all by himself!

Palmer did this matching game all by himself!

Addie practiced writing her numbers. She's getting good!

Addie practiced writing her numbers. She’s getting good!

Six Months Home

It’s hard to believe that so many months have passed since our incredible journey to the Congo and back with our children. We barely got out of the country with both kids, and arrived on American soil exactly six months ago today.

There are so many things that are so much different from six months ago: our kids are speaking (mostly) English, the daily Palmer-tantrums are gone, the incessant Addie-belches are gone, we know that they are significantly older than they were alleged to be, and the incredible fear that resulted in bizarre behavior has relaxed as our kids are learning to trust us, and maybe even love us.

I knew one of the hardest things about adoption is awaiting love to be returned. One thing I didn’t anticipate was how hard it would be for me to love them in the first place. Oh, I had adored every picture, memorizing every crumb on Addie’s face, every time Palmer lost a tooth, every flash of a smile. But truthfully, I only loved the idea of them — the idea of rescuing two orphans from a miserable plight, the chance to introduce them to Jesus, the chance to live out the Gospel in such a tangible way.

Suddenly I had to transition from admiring two pictures to raising two children.

I didn’t realize how hard it would be to love two children who really only loved each other, who weren’t interested in communicating with me or being affectionate, who bristled at my touch and glared at me with hateful eyes.

“Do you not know how hard we worked to adopt you? Do you not know the expense, the hours of praying, the paperwork, the torment of just trying to bring you home?”

No, they do not. We were some strangers who suddenly and mysteriously entered their lives in the Congo, carried them away from everyone they ever knew, and planted them in a country where they are the minority, no one else speaks their language, and forced them into school that is much beyond their capability.

“Adoption is the only trauma in the world where the victims are expected by the whole of society to be grateful.” — Reverend Keith C. Griffith

It’s a wonder we’ve survived at all.

But this is the awesome nature of living out the Gospel. The Incarnation was not a pretty process either. Sometimes we tend to want the glory of the resurrection without the suffering of the cross, but we cannot experience the fullness of the Gospel without each.

As we wait for our children to return our affection, and accept themselves as part of our family, I can only recall what my Savior did for me, and wonder how many times He has waited patiently, crying out, “Do you not know the torment I went through just to bring you home?” How many times do I still bristle at His touch, or only love what I have here-and-now more than eternity? Meanwhile, He is inviting me to a deeper and more rich relationship where I see His Kingdom through His eyes instead of my own.

The more I know adoption, and the more I reflect on spiritual things, the more I realize that the model of the Incarnation — dwelling INTO suffering, not standing outside of it, is the key to knowing more of the heart and mind of Christ. I cannot stand outside of our children’s lives and merely wish them well or pray about them. No, I must whisper admist the tantrums, wade through impossible homework, wrestle through language barriers, and wipe the snotty noses of these children. My children. They will never know that I love them otherwise.

If we’re not intentionally wading into the suffering of others — the poor, the widows, orphans, the trafficked, the enslaved, the foreigners — how will they ever know our love, and ultimately, God’s love? This is the heart of the Incarnation, and the incarnational life: intentionally loving, even when it means that the mess of others splashes onto us.

And I do love them. I adore Palmer’s wit, his funny faces, his wild and adventurous spirit, his disciplined nature, and his tender heart. I adore Addie’s genuine giggle, her willingness to help at any task, her happy spirit, the way she plays with my fingers during prayer time, and her insistence that even the worst of times can be survived with a wistful sigh and the bat of an eyelash. My love for my children is love not born out of labor and delivery in the physical realm, but in the spiritual realm.

I cannot love them because they look like me. I love them because they look like Him.

There are no shortcuts to the glory of the resurrection. And even though incarnational living has been exceptionally painful at times, I’ve experienced God in an entirely new way in the last six months.

What could be more magnificent than that?

Palmer reading a bedtime story tonight.

Palmer reading a bedtime story tonight.

A Week of Beachful Bliss

With Ken and I both working with college students, but in different capacities, we’ve found that there is only one week out of the year that works for vacation for BOTH of us at the same time: the week around Christmas and New Years. Both of our offices are closed, and although Ken follows that week with a huge college conference, he has made it a priority that we take some time off together.

Not only did we need a break from an exhausting year, the kids needed a break from their exhausting year as well. We tried to carefully explain that we were going away for a week to have fun together. We told them about the beach, building sand castles, and the fact that we would be spending Christmas at the beach. And that Santa would find us there.

Not knowing how a road trip with two kids who were having pretty serious behavioral issues would go, we loaded up the luggage, the dogs, and the kids, and headed off for Cape San Blas, Florida.

Ken and I have been vacationing at Cape San Blas since 2000. Our favorite part about it is that there is space to run and play, for kids, dogs, and adults alike. It’s rare to see anyone else even on the beach. And though the weather isn’t as warm as southern Florida, it suits our purposes just fine.

We arrived at the Cape after sunset, the Saturday before Christmas, and when the kids woke up the next morning, they were really excited to get down to the beach. While we were there, we frequently saw a pair of bald eagles, who lived somewhere near our rental house, and a pod of dolphins, who swam just 20 feet from the shoreline, and were very interested in the kids.

The kids were perfect. No tantrums. No pants-wetting. No entitlement or disobedience. They were so perfect, we’ve considered just moving there to escape the reality that faces them in Nashville.

Here’s a glimpse into the rest of our Christmas break.

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We arrived back home in Nashville the following Saturday, and Ken is already off to Atlanta for a conference. We’re back to learning to read, learning letters, and learning English. Tantrums have returned. Entitlement has reared it’s ugly head again.

But for a week at the beach, we took a break from all the progress that has to be made, and we had bliss.

So How Are the Kids? Part 2

Addie. Poor Addie. I don’t think she had any idea the implications of her actions when she told me that she was six years old in the orphanage and now she was four years old. But her bone age and her teeth confirmed it. The youngest she could possibly be is 5 1/2.  She could be as old as 8.

I think Addie would have been forever happy in her 3-year-old classroom at preschool, where she was not only designated princess, but something of a boss as well, as she had more than her fair share of fights. Though her motor skills fit right in, she was bigger and more manipulative than the others. To be bumped up into Kindergarten where she is woefully behind in all respects just wasn’t very easy for her.

Addie is the sole sanguine extrovert in a household of OCD introverts. She is generally good-natured and easily distractible. She doesn’t have any mental anguish over wearing shoes on the correct feet, wearing clothes right side out, leaving the bathroom without her dress tucked up into her panties, or getting food at dinnertime exactly in her mouth. Those are minor and unimportant details. There is fun to be had, somewhere! She loves to sing — but only the vowels, not consonants, and the actual tune is simply not conditional to her expression of joy. She chatters endlessly about a variety of subjects, and is the source of much laughter. She’s careful to say “Thank you, mommy,” at meals, with new toys, new clothes, and even putting toothpaste on her toothbrush.

It’s been hard to figure out what Addie really likes to do because she likes to do whatever Palmer is doing. Eventually, we figured out from her preschool teacher that she liked Barbie dolls and horses, but mostly, she likes one of whatever Palmer is playing with. Anything that lights up, makes noise, or moves fits the bill. Her poor motor skills have made Lego almost impossible for her until the last few weeks.

Addie’s eventual diagnosis from all of her medical testing came down to heavy metal poisoning. Her lead levels were high when she came home, so I’ve assumed that it’s lead, but that’s not necessarily the case — it may be other toxic metals. The heavy metal deposits scattered throughout her bones are surely not good for the rest of her body either. Her motor skill deficits (She’s three years behind in fine motor skills.) are likely a result of the poisoning, and her lack of progress in this area still concerns me. In spite of working with her daily, she can barely cut food with a fork, get food in her mouth, button clothing, or write letters. If lead poisoning is the cause, the neurologic deficits lead causes are permanent. At this point, we just don’t know. And we may never know.

Addie is much more snuggly than Palmer. She and I have snuggle and story time every evening, but she’s snuggly with pretty much everyone. More than once, we’ve caught her snuggling the leg of a stranger while in crowds or standing in line. Affection does not equal bonding, and while I think she likes us, she rarely makes genuine eye contact up close. She’s just not ready yet. She also is still learning to distinguish appropriate ways to get affection, and from whom.

Adoption experts say that happy compliant children start to go a little crazy 2-3 months after coming home when they feel safe enough to no longer be happy or compliant. This occurred around the same time that she was skipping grades, and I was almost dying. She has so little control over her life, but she has managed to control three areas:

1. Language.

2. Learning.

3. Urination.

According to Ken, Addie speaks even better French than Palmer, so her delay in speaking English has been confounding. She is so very verbal, but only in Lingala and a little in French. She easily parrots what others are saying, but parroting has not equaled learning. She knows about 60 words, mostly just nouns like: dog, airplane, baby, etc. but very little in the category of “useful” information. I know for a time that Palmer told her not to speak English, but in the last 2 months, he has started telling her to speak English, to no avail. She is happy just speaking Lingala to her brother, who functions like a parent to her, while eating the food we give her, wearing the clothes we provide, and playing with toys we’ve given her.

Not speaking English is something she can control. We can’t MAKE her speak English, although we have restricted Lingala at the dinner table and in the van. After all, it’s rude to speak another language in the company of others who don’t speak it. We’ve tried separating them as much as possible, but it results in her not speaking at all. When I have been alone with her and absolutely forbidden her to speak Lingala to me, she has been able to speak much more English than I expected. But at this point, it’s a punishment for her to have to speak in English. Unfortunately, attachment and bonding occur in the same area of the brain as shared language, so she literally cannot attach to us without speaking English. So yes, we are diligent in pushing English-speaking on her.

Addie’s learning has been extremely inconsistent. One day she’ll know all of her letters, numbers, and colors, and the next day, she won’t. When I took her for English Learner’s testing to determine services, she scored 1/81. She would have scored 10 points just for writing her name, which she can do. She basically just became uncooperative, and the teacher came out of her testing room and told me that she didn’t belong in Kindergarten. Unfortunately, because she is almost 7, we don’t really have a choice. In our school system, children cannot be more than one year off their actual grade level. Her Kindergarten teacher wrote me a note the first week, saying that she can’t count objects, which she has been doing for 3 months. I also got more than one note about her fighting with other students. In parent-teacher conference, the teacher was shocked that Addie had ever identified the numbers 1-10. While other kids in her class are learning to read, she has been relegated to gluing craft sticks to paper, and scribbling on blank sheets. We’ve determined that the demonstration of her knowledge and to whom is one thing that she can control, and if she’s nervous or doesn’t want to cooperate, she pretends she doesn’t know. One can imagine that this makes intelligence testing and determination nearly impossible, even if she were speaking English.

The most frustrating thing with Addie’s control issues are her bladder issues. She is a spiteful pee-er. When she’s mad at us, she’ll pee in her pants, or on furniture. Before school went on break, she was peeing her pants up to every 20 minutes but only when she was at home. She was dry at school, at church, and with babysitters. But when Ken and I were home with her, she was almost constantly wetting her pants. I finally just had to put her in pull-ups, even for school — not because she would wet her pants at school, but because she would wet her pants on the way home. We even took family pictures with her in pull ups so we wouldn’t have wet pants commemorating our Christmas together. She seems just as happy to wear pull-ups — at least she doesn’t have to get up to go to the bathroom!

If my lungs weren’t going to kill me, she may.

So our happy little 4-year-old has turned out to be a possibly mentally disabled (or just manipulative), non-English-speaking 6-year-old spiteful pee-er. What is her prognosis? No idea. After over 4 months without even as much as a conversation with our chatty daughter, we’re discouraged. We meet with a team of educational professionals, therapists, and counselors once the new school year starts to see if we can come up with a plan, but since she has been unwilling to demonstrate what she is really capable of, I’m not even sure we can come up with a good plan.

Sigh.

I hope it’s just a matter of time before the games stop, and we realize who our daughter really is. We will love whoever she is, if we can only figure it out! So we wait for her to feel safe, to stop feeling the need to control, and to stop pretending to be someone she’s not. We are thankful that while she figures it out that she is generally good natured and funny, and someday we hope she’ll trust us enough to let us be her parents.

So there it is. That’s how the kids are doing. I never would have imagined that after 4 months that we would have so little communication with our kids. It’s almost like they have continued to just be their own family living under our roof. But they are still in survival mode, just like we are. We hope that in the new year, we’ll be able to do more than just survive. We hope to become a family!

So How Are the Kids?

We’ve been home for over 4 months now. In some ways, the kids have progressed in ways far greater than expected, mostly due to the fact that they are at least 2 years older than we were told, and in some ways, progress has been slow. They have been through not only the loss of their family, country, and culture, but even the classrooms they had adjusted to for 6 weeks. Medical appointments every week and unwelcome popularity have made things difficult for them as well. They’ve had a tough road.

Palmer first.

Palmer is adjusting to 1st grade, but the transition has been hard. In four months, going from not recognizing letters and numbers to reading and doing math is a HUGE adjustment. He is taking spelling tests, but his teacher is counting his words correct if he spells sounds correctly, but we’ll be transitioning to full spelling tests in the new year. (That silent “e” is hard!) He underwent some special testing of intelligence from an EL professor from Vanderbilt, and he is very intelligent once language is taken out of the equation. He thinks more like a second grader or older, but we’re not anxious to have him skip another grade.  And because he is within a year of his actual age’s grade, we don’t have to skip him any more. But we are all confident that given enough time, he will excel in school in English.

Palmer is also making solid strides at learning language. Once we told him we didn’t care how old he was, and that we would give him a bicycle once he was speaking English, he started making steady progress. He can communicate just about anything he needs to, and seems to understand everything we say to him. He speaks in very basic sentences in present tense, but past and future tense is hard. Frankly, English is hard!

Palmer’s fear of church has subsided. Tantrums on Sunday, before or after church, are largely gone, and he is starting to relax and play with other kids. He likes carrying his Bible to church, and looks forward to seeing friends.

Palmer is quite the prankster and has a fabulous sense of humor. Please note the funny face glasses that he picked out for Ken for Christmas! Because his language isn’t very developed, his humor is primarily physical comedy, but he’s beginning to understand sarcasm. He will often come out of his room with his underwear on his head, his pants on his arms, and his shirt as shorts, and jump out with a “Raaaaaah!” I’ve been playing a version of “Elf on a Shelf” with his Buzz Lightyear and Woody the Cowboy toys and he thinks it’s hilarious.

He loves Legos, and is getting better at figuring out complex designs. If something around the house is broken, chances are, he can fix it. He is a very analytical thinker, which will be what gets him through this transition to American culture.

His favorite things to do are: walking the dogs with Ken in the morning, watching movies, and playing soccer. Ken comments that were it not for his size, he could make any high school soccer team. He is good, even by third world standards.

He’ll be playing Upward basketball this winter and Upward soccer in the spring. We hope he can work on teamwork, friendship, and communication skills with kids his own age.

He is very much an adult at the ripe age of 8 in many ways. He sees himself as Addie’s parent in many ways, and still directs much of her behavior.  He resents being told what to do, to the point that he has screamed for an hour when Ken fast forwarded through a chapter of a movie. The more toys he has, the more entitled he feels, and will burst into tears or pout  and be completely uncooperative when asked to put one down to eat dinner. He cannot be distracted out of his tantrums. This all makes it difficult to do fun things with him like take him to the zoo, amusement park rides, or playgrounds. It always ends in a tantrum or uncooperative pouting. We didn’t take him to any stores except Home Depot until December because he cannot take no for an answer.

Palmer is not physically affectionate at all, but he will accept affection. One day last week, I told him how proud I was of him and kissed the top of his fuzzy head, and his arms reached out to start to hug me, but he caught himself, and put his arms robotically back down at his side. He’s just not ready yet. (BTW, this is why it makes me furious when people try to make Palmer hug them. He doesn’t even hug ME!)

Sigh. Maybe someday.

We understand that given the amount of grief he has in his life, that this is to be expected. As an adult, I can comprehend what’s going on, and I have a rough four months. He doesn’t have the ability to see beyond his current circumstances and the people he misses in Africa. We know he is grieving, but it still doesn’t make his behavior easy to deal with. It still hurts that I have never had a hug or kiss from my son, or even a decent conversation. While he is my son legally, it’s hard to feel a parental bond without much common language or reciprocal physical touch.

It’s been said that for the first 6 months of international adoption, it often feels like you’re just babysitting someone else’s kids. That’s where we’re at. He’s a great kid, especially when we can avoid triggering his tantrums, and we are growing to love him very much. We eagerly anticipate the day when he lets us “in” and can feel free to love us back. He has to give us permission to be his parents, and that has yet to come.

Tomorrow: Addie.

An American Jewett Thanksgiving

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We spent our first Thanksgiving together, telling our kids how we do Jewett Thanksgiving. No one goes to school. No one goes to work. Housework minimal. Cartoons plentiful. Parade mandatory. (Addie kept yelling at the screen for them to throw her candy!) We play games as a family. We eat steak, not turkey, because no one REALLY likes turkey anyway. We wear stretchy pants because we eat all day.

Most of all, we are thankful that we are all together for Thanksgiving this year. We have food, we have shelter, we have God’s love, we have each other. Everything else is just bonus.

When we’ve asked our kids about Christmas — in French and in English — they seem to have no idea what we’re talking about. Santa Clause? No idea. They do know about baby Jesus but have no concept of traditions of the holiday otherwise. So we took them to one of our favorite Christmas destinations: Opryland Hotel. We arrived around 4:00 and it was empty. By the time we left, it was super crowded. But the kids had a great time (between pouting episodes). We played, ate ice cream, and looked at thousands of lights. It’s great to see them experience all the joy and wonder of holidays for the first time!