Wednesday, June 22, 2016

My Top 10 Tips for Toddler Adoption

Dear friends of ours in Tanzania will be bringing home their two-year-old little girl in the coming months. The recent celebration of Father’s Day and the upcoming growth of our friends’ family has led me to reflect on our own adoption journey. If I were to pass anything along to families adopting a toddler, this would be it.

My Top 10 Tips for Toddler Adoption
  1. Research. There are some great books out there that give practical ideas for helping you and your child connect and grow. My personal favorite is Parenting Your Internationally Adopted Child by Patty Cogen. I also liked 20 Things Adoptive Parents Need to Succeed by Sherrie Eldridge, because it identifies dozens of other resources that will help us at various points in our journey. I paid the $25 for an online subscription to Adoptive Families Magazine, which gave me access to all current and past articles, as well as podcasts on a variety of topics. Whenever I’ve had questions, it’s been pretty easy to search for the topic in the magazine. I also recommend asking lots of questions of your child’s previous caregivers. What is the child’s typical schedule? What do they like to eat? What food do they dislike? What are they afraid of? What helps to calm them when they are upset? Thankfully, we were able to shadow Michael’s caregivers for a full day. It helped us to understand Michael’s previous norms and to make the transition as easy as possible for him. Regular visits with him before we brought him home also started the bonding process and helped ease the transition.
  2. Be gentle with yourself. I think it is important to realize that no matter how much parents prepare, they won’t be fully prepared. We were definitely figuring things out as we went. Actually, truth be told, we still are. ;-) It took about three months for us to find our new normal. Survival mode is a very real thing, especially when your child isn’t sleeping well.  Do whatever you have to do to keep your sanity. Self-care is so important, even as you are caring for another little person. I think those who have to wait a really long time to become parents are even more apt to try to be perfect parents. The dream of perfect parenting went away for me on Day Three when I was holding Michael and sobbing from exhaustion. I’ve realized that kids don’t need perfect parents. They need the love of imperfect parents who show them that it is ok to be imperfect.
  3. Ask for help. Communities know that parents with a newborn need help. In both Tanzania and the U.S., people will rally around a family with a new baby—cooking meals for them, helping with chores, etc. However, folks often don’t realize that adoptive families also need support. We have to ask. For us, that meant asking a Tanzanian friend to bring dinner for us our first night home with Michael. Looking back, I wish we would have asked our neighbors for more help in those first weeks. I know they would have been willing. We did finally come to our senses and realize that with Omary (our previous house helper) away at school, we needed more help. We bought a washing machine which cut back on hours of handwashing. We also hired Dinnah and taught her to do many different to chores to lighten our load. She has been an absolute Godsend. With the added support, we could spend more time with Michael, more time together as a couple, and more time sleeping.
  4. Take advice (including this blog) with a grain of salt. Somehow I thought that by living in Tanzania I would escape some of the “mommy wars” and the barrage of advice that comes with parenting. I was wrong. Everyone has an opinion. From Tanzanians, we get “What are you feeding him for breakfast? You should feed him this.” “He should play more with other children.” “You are carrying him too much.” “He should attend this school next year.” “You are putting him to bed too early.” “He needs a jacket. It is very cold (i.e. the temperature dropped below 75 degrees Fahrenheit)”… From the worldwide web, we’ve been told what we should be doing regarding Michael’s sleeping habits, weight, health, activities, etc. It can get very overwhelming. Some advice has been helpful and some hasn’t. I think I’ve come to more peace with it all as I’ve realized this is just part of parenting in today’s world. Take what works for you and leave the rest. The truth is that there are differences between a child entering a family by birth and one entering by adoption. There are differences between a child entering a family as a first child and one entering a family that already has biological or adoptive siblings. There are differences in adopting an infant vs. a toddler. There are differences in raising a child in Tanzania vs. any other country. There are differences in communities and housing arrangements. There are differences in parents’ personalities and parenting preferences. And there are differences in children, regardless of any other factor. What works for one child may not work for another and what is a struggle for one child may be a breeze for another. Parenting is in many ways a giant experiment, so we all have to try different things and see what works for our families.
  5. Weight lift before adoption. This was one that caught me by surprise. Toddlers are heavy! Parents who start their families biologically typically start with a kid 6-8lbs and work their way up. We started with more than 20lbs of weight. Then add to that the books saying how important carrying your toddler is for bonding, Michael wanting to be held only by me, and Michael wanting to be held all day long in those first months. I had some extremely sore arms!! Carriers definitely help (if the child is willing) so invest in a good one, but physical preparation beforehand also would have helped. 
  6. Prepare yourself emotionally for your child to bond with one parent before the other. I had this dream that Eric and I would be able to share in all aspects of parenting from the beginning, but that wasn’t the case. Michael bonded to me first. As an example, the very first day before we left Mwanza with our son, I needed to use the toilet--a dirty squatty-potty, not suitable for two. When I handed Michael off to Eric, Michael screamed and screamed and only calmed when I returned. In that first six weeks, both Michael and I were terribly sick with a cold that he had picked up before his departure from the baby home. Eric would have taken him so that I could rest, but Michael wanted me, every moment of every day. Michael’s third night home, I only got 4 hours of sleep because Michael would only sleep in my arms. The next day, he took a nap in the car on the way back from visiting our social workers and wouldn’t go down for his regular nap. Thus, Eric played with him on my stomach while I took a power nap on the couch. It was hard on both Eric and me. I felt like Michael wanted more from me than my sick-self had to give, and Eric felt like he had more to give than Michael would allow. This phase passed, but it was a tough one and one we didn’t expect. I reassured Eric that he was a great father and that I appreciated him doing all the behind-the-scenes work--preparing the diapers and pajamas, washing the dishes and diapers, cooking dinner, cleaning up the house, etc. Eric reassured me that I was a great mother, even when I was sick, exhausted, tearful, sore, and just wanted some space. Even though our job distribution didn’t originally go as planned, we were still a team. We are happy to say that now the balance is much more like we had hoped. Michael has bonded with both of us, enjoys time with both of us, and finds comfort from both of us.
  7. Make time for the transition. Toddlers joining a new family have a difficult road to travel, because they are going through the developmental stages of attachment and independence all at once. Two-year-olds by nature experience extremes, but I think it can be even more dramatic for kids with complex backgrounds. One day they want to be fed by you; the next day they want to do it themselves. One day they are content to lead the way on the walk; the next they want to be carried the whole way. We’ve had many people ask us, “Why is Michael still _________?” (sucking his fingers, wanting to be hand fed, wanting to be carried, wanting to be cuddled overnight, etc.) I try to explain that for a year and a half of his life, he had to share his caregivers’ attention with 20-50 other kids. He didn’t have a mother or father to dote on him.  Yes, he still uses some of his coping mechanisms from his time at the baby home, and yes, sometimes he regresses and wants to be babied. He is making up for lost time and has to regularly adapt to many new experiences and people. He had to learn how to ride comfortably in a car seat; he didn’t learn that as a newborn leaving from the hospital. He had to learn how to take a bath/shower in our bathtub. He had to learn what it means to share in a family meal at the table. It’s a process for him, and it is ok to take it slow. It has also been a process for us. So much changed when we became parents—sleep, food, daily schedule, work/ministry, hobbies, vacations, etc. I highly recommend making space in one’s life for the transition. That can mean different things in different families, but I think it helps to hold loosely on to expectations of what life will be like. Make time to grieve for the aspects of life that aren’t what they once were and to rejoice in the beautiful additions to your life.  You can help your child to do likewise.
  8. Intentionally connect with your partner and with God. I am pretty sure this is true with most new parents, but we discovered that Michael quickly became our lives. If we weren’t intentional about connecting with each other, it just wouldn’t happen. Once we started getting past survival mode and got the help we needed, we began to set aside time together after Michael’s bedtime. One night is specifically designated to listen to a sermon podcast together and discuss it. One night is date night when we read together, play a game together, watch a movie together, or just talk. This made a huge difference in our relationship and in our ability to parent well.
  9. Prepare your heart to be an ambassador for adoption. A friend of mine who has also adopted told me this bit of advice before we brought Michael home. Many people don’t know much about adoption or haven’t interacted with an adoptive family. They will ask questions and sometimes make insensitive, hurtful comments.  We have figured out our answers and responses to some of the more common questions and comments, but we know this will be part of our journey for the rest of our lives. Thankfully, we aren’t in it alone it. There are many other adoptive families who can help.
  10. Soak in the moments whenever you can. This post delves into some of the hard aspects of adopting a toddler, but it is truly worth it. Michael has brought us more joy than we ever thought possible. We have been able to watch Michael’s personality unfold as he has become more confident and secure in our love.  Our home has come alive in many new and wonderful ways. The first time that your child calls you Mommy or Daddy— or Mama and Baba—is magical, and with a toddler, you generally don’t have to wait quite as long as with infants. The brains of toddlers are sponges soaking up the world, and we get to witness it on a daily basis. New words. New activities. Every day is an adventure. Every photo reminds us of how far Michael has come and how far we have come as a family. A beloved professor of mine, who has two children by adoption and two by birth, said it well: “The love is the same. No matter how they come to you, the love is the same.”

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Right People, Right Times-- A blog revival ;-)

I have abandoned this blog for far too long. I think there are many reasons why…

  • There’s a lot to process in the first two years of living in a new place, so there’s a natural impetus to write things down. For me, that inertia started to diminish over time. I’ve noticed this trend for many other missionaries too.
  • We’ve been able to share a lot of our stories through other media, like Facebook albums. 
  • As we became further invested in our ministries, there were times when immediate needs took priority over writing.
  • After my last post in November 2014, we began the 2015 school year. We spent the first 5 months trying to get as much covered at school as possible and preparing for our first furlough (May-July 2015). Then shortly after our first furlough we became parents! That will change life for sure ;-)
  • I also think for me there are seasons in my life when I write and there are seasons in my life when I read. In the last year and a half, I’ve felt more inclined to read. And I’ve read some amazing things… Love Does by Bob Goff, all of Brene Brown’s books, Parenting Your Internationally Adopted Child by Patty Cogen, etc.

All that to say, there are plenty of reasons why I didn’t write, but I’m starting to feel the nudge to do some reflecting and writing again. So where to begin?

As I look back at the year and a half gap in this blog, I’m just amazed at how people have come into our lives at exactly the right time. During the times when our journey seemed especially messy, I take great comfort in looking back and seeing how God pulled together other aspects of our lives.

Community Health Evangelism
In December 2011, we traveled to Jos, Nigeria, believing that to be where God was calling us next. During that visit, we were introduced to Fiona and Rick Jara and their girls. Fiona, a nurse midwife from Australia, had been implementing a Community Health Evangelism (CHE) program in villages outside of Jos. CHE is a world-renowned program that has been implemented in 119 countries to date. It is a biblically-based holistic health program that “equips communities to identify issues and mobilize resources to achieve positive, sustainable change.”[1]  While in Nigeria, I was able to shadow Fiona as she taught a CHE seminar on maternal health. We also visited a village so concerned about the poor maternal health rates that they had come together to renovate a building donated by a local leader and turned it into a birthing center. It was inspiring to see what communities can do when they have a shared vision and the education necessary. Fiona promised to make sure I was fully trained in CHE if I came to work in Nigeria.

After our visit, life changed. Violence, strikes, and kidnappings at that time caused many organizations to pull missionaries out of Nigeria. We received a new call to Tanzania that was an even better fit for our skills and passions. The Jara family moved to Ghana to work with an organization doing CHE there. And life moved on... until January 2015.

Almost four years after meeting the Jara family, we learned that they were considering a call to Tanzania and would be in the Arusha area for several months. Fiona asked if I still wanted to be trained in CHE, because she and Rick were hosting a Training of Trainers 1 seminar in Arusha. The answer was yes!

After the training, I was excited about the potential of CHE, but knew that if it was truly going to be community-owned, I shouldn’t be the one to lead the way. I would need Tanzanian help. Nine months later I learned that Holly Freitas, another CHE trainer, would be hosting a vision seminar in Mwanza. Thus we sponsored three representatives from our diocese, chosen by Bishop Makala, to attend the seminar. They came back passionate about the program, but we were delayed in putting anything together by my new role as mother. Finally, in March 2016 we held a vision seminar for leaders throughout our diocese, and the idea of Christ-centered community-based development gained momentum. We are now choosing pilot areas and preparing for a full Training of Trainers 1 (TOT1) at the end of the month. The diocese has also chosen Jeremiah Shauri as CHE coordinator. He will be traveling to Kenya in August for a 5-week course covering TOT2, TOT3, and many other topics. He will also receive internship experience there.

Everything has happened at pretty much the only time it could have happened. I met Fiona Jara during the one month we were in Nigeria in 2011. The Jaras were only in Tanzania for a few months in 2015 and are now currently living in Australia. Holly came to do the seminar in Mwanza in September 2015, shortly before she broke her neck in a crazy beach-wave accident. She has been in recovery since that time and has not held any other seminars in the Mwanza area. We could have never guessed how all of this would unfold, and yet here we are with many doors opening up. We don’t know exactly where all of this will lead, but we definitely have a sense that God is in it.

Language Mentor
I have a love/hate relationship with the Swahili language, which could actually be a topic for a whole post in and of itself. I remember when I lived in Papua New Guinea, I felt sorry for those teachers who spent most of their time at English-speaking schools, because it was so much harder for them to learn the local language. And now here we are in Tanzania in a very similar situation. It is a struggle to learn a new language, and in my opinion, Swahili is every bit as robust a language as English. Choose any sentence, and there are probably at least 10 different ways to say the exact same thing in Swahili. One language learning website estimates that for English-speakers it takes about 600 solid hours for individuals to become conversational in Spanish. For Swahili, they estimated it would take about 900 solid hours. Because we live in a community with many English-speakers and students who need us to speak English, it has been slow in coming. I’ve also always been one who does well with accountability—a teacher or guide. Give me a standard and I will likely surpass it. I do even better with fellow classmates with whom to commiserate and study. After language school, we had no designated teacher, no accountability, and no fellow classmates. We got to a level of Swahili where we could comfortably get around and then the learning slowed to a crawl. I prayed that I might find some way to reignite my language learning.

Then I attended the CHE vision seminar in Arusha in January 2015, and I met fellow participant Amanda. She told me about how she had a language coach and a language helper in her Swahili study. Her language coach provided accountability and language learning ideas. She would work with her Tanzanian language helper each week and then would report back to her coach. She offered to be my coach and encouraged me to find a helper. My friend Mercy agreed to be my helper, and the next six months of lessons reinvigorated my language learning. The lessons have been put on the backburner since Michael came home, but I continue to be grateful for how God answered my prayer in that season of my life.

We started thinking about adopting in Tanzania all the way back in 2012. During our time at language school in Morogoro, we spent quite a bit of our free time at an orphanage within walking distance. As we played with and got to know these precious children, we began to wonder, “Was it possible for expats to adopt in Tanzania?” When we moved to Mwadui, I searched for the answer via the internet. I found the Forever Angels website, which described the process for expats adopting. A few months later, I realized that Forever Angels was only 2.5 hours away from us, and we could actually visit the baby home (yes, I was a little slow on that one.) We visited the home in September 2013 and met the founder Amy Hathaway. Amy and her husband were originally from England. They had adopted 5 children themselves and had helped countless expat and Tanzanian families adopt. We learned that we couldn’t foster/adopt until we had lived in country for 2-3 years. We continued to think and pray about it and decided that we would probably benefit from talking to other Americans who had adopted from Tanzania because every country has such different policies. One night we discussed contacting the U.S. embassy.

The very next weekend, we took a trip to Mwanza and decided to attend the late service at the Lutheran cathedral. As we entered the compound, the earlier service was concluding and out walked a white couple with three white children and two black children. We were amazed, because we hadn’t seen them before and we knew all the expat Lutheran missionaries. We introduced ourselves and met Dr. Rob Peck, who is a pediatric surgeon at Bugando hospital, and Liz Peck who is a nurse and regularly volunteers at Forever Angels. Two of their beautiful children were adopted from Forever Angels. Their family have become dear friends of ours. They connected us with our lawyer in Dar Es Salaam and answered so many of our questions about adoption. They have encouraged us on our journey, offered medical advice when needed, and opened their home to us many times as a place of respite. Would we have met them if we hadn’t been in Mwanza that weekend? Who knows! However, God knew that we needed them in our lives and through them we have met many more wonderful people who have blessed our lives.

I have many more stories like this… friendships that God knew I needed even when I didn’t know… people who came to visit from the U.S. at the exact time I needed medicine or some other supplies…. people who spoke right to my heart when I needed it most.

There are definitely ups and downs in this life, and sometimes when we are right in the midst of it, we can’t see how God is working. Sometimes, it is only by looking back that I can begin to see the patterns of care and the faithfulness of God.