Kirsten, Chris, Oliver, Soren, Kiera and Matteo

Kirsten, Chris, Oliver, Soren, Kiera and Matteo

Friday, June 24, 2016

A Superhero Father's Day

Oliver, Soren, Kiera and Matteo adore their father. They want to do everything with him - ride bikes, have him read to them, go to the cabin and ride on the boat. Wherever he goes, they want to be able to tag along, even if he's just making a Home Depot run. They know their dad is a bit of a softy and is going to be the one to let them stay up past their bedtime, watch a video, bike to Mojo Monkey to get donuts or allow them to have a "fun bath" where they don't have to wash their hair. In case you haven't heard, Chris is the fun parent. However, I love watching our four with their dad because they're at this incredible age where they look at him as their superhero.  And that is what inspired this Father's Day gift.
It was a risky gift since Chris doesn't like to draw attention to himself and some in my not-so-extended family are not fans of matching outfits. But the kids loved the t-shirts and were so excited about surprising their dad with them.  Unfortunately, their excitement meant that Chris didn't get one of his Father's Day wishes - sleeping in. We tried to make up for that with an "I'm a dad, what's your superpower?" coffee mug and a huge Superman-themed hand-painted card Celina helped the kids make.

The theme of this Father's Day may have been superheros, but it's important for me to acknowledge that being a superhero dad is a tiring job.  Long before the summer sun sets, Chris heads to bed in the hopes of getting enough sleep in preparation for a pre-dawn wake-up call, an early workout at the gym, a long, demanding day at work and then an evening devoted entirely to his kids. As tiring as his schedule is, he's proud to be able to both provide for his family and spend time with us, and we love him and appreciate him so much for this.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

There's Finally Room at the Table

I remember when our dining table, which could seat six, felt unnecessarily large.  It was just Chris and me across from each other with Oliver seated in his booster seat at the head of the table. Even when Soren came along, we still didn't use half the table and papers and magazines and other clutter could pile up on one end of the table with plenty of room left for our family to sit down to dinner.  Then our first au pair arrived and a few months later we brought Kiera and Matteo home and our family of seven technically no longer fit around the table. Every night at dinner, we'd pull the time-out chair out of the corner and make three chairs try to fit where only two are supposed to.

After a year and a half of this arrangement, there's finally room at the table for our whole family - and even a couple of guests. The drawn-out process of "making sure we can fit our family" is finally complete. We bought a minivan when we started the adoption process, broke ground on the addition to our house when we realized we were going to be doubling the number of children in our family and can now sit down more comfortably for a meal in the fully-renovated house. 
Here's a pro tip for making a major purchase quickly and decisively.  Bring four young children on an hour's drive to a 60,000-square-foot furniture showroom, set them loose and then make your customized table selections while your children burn off their energy jumping on the beds, playing "don't get off the couch" (thanks Grandpa Dan...) and tearing around the store like they own the place. The sales guys had looked like they were involved in a desperate game of "not it" when they saw us walk in, but the young man who lost ended up making the fastest commission of his career thanks to us.

We may have gambled with our hasty decisions, but we love our new table. It comfortably seats eight, yet can easily squeeze in 10, and can seat 12 with the additional leaf.  It's not only nice that there's room at the table for our family, but that there's room for guests to join us.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Orphan Hosting FAQ's

Ian arrived in United States today and it's awesome how many people are interested in his story and have helped to advocate by sharing blog and Facebook posts within their networks. And with all that sharing, questions have naturally come up about orphan hosting. It's a new concept to most people, including those who have previously adopted internationally. To better understand the hosting program, I've compiled these frequently asked questions based on the questions I have received.

What is "orphan hosting"?
China is one of a couple of countries (along with Latvia and the Philippines, to name a few) that facilitates programs where children in state care come to the United States for a couple of weeks to experience the love of a family, life outside their orphanage and U.S. culture. It's an opportunity to learn about a child and any medical needs he or she has, and advocate for that child with information beyond what's in his or her adoption file. The ultimate goal is to connect potential forever families to these children, who would be otherwise harder to place if they had remained in their home countries. Typically, over 75% of children who are hosted end up being adopted after their first host trip, whether by their host family or their host family’s community members, extended family members, or friends.

Ian is being hosted through Great Wall China Adoption, based out of Austin, Texas.  Great Wall is one of many American adoption agencies with China hosting programs.  Children typically come for four to five weeks over the holiday season or in the summer.

Who's chosen for the China hosting program?
Staff from adoption agencies work together with orphanages they have established relationships with to identify children who are at risk of not being adopted, such as children who are older or who have significant and/or overwhelming-sounding special needs. These are the children who need an opportunity for people to get to know them beyond the little (and sometimes inaccurate or incomplete) information available in their adoption files. A medical diagnosis like cerebral palsy or the thought of parenting a 12-year-old boy may initially overwhelm a family, but if they meet a child and witness how mobile and independent she is despite muscle weakness, or meet that preteen and have the opportunity to form a bond, the leap of faith adoption requires feels less like jumping off the deep end.

Who hosts them?
Two types of families host, those who intend to adopt the child they are hosting and those who host in order to advocate.

What do families do to advocate?
Host families find different ways to spread the word about the particular child they're hosting, but also the many other children in orphanages in China who need families. They typically use social media and blog, but will also host gatherings in their community for friends and family to get to know their host child. 

If the host family wants to adopt their host child, can the child stay?
Oh how I wish there were so! At the end of the hosting term, the host children and their chaperones must return to China. The family can start the adoption process before the child returns, but they still must complete the same nine-to-10-month process as families who have not hosted. 

Why can the children only stay a few weeks?  Why can't they live with foster families in the U.S. until they are adopted?
The children participating in the China hosting program are Chinese citizens and are under the guardianship of orphanages in their home cities and are not eligible for foster care in the U.S.

Ian is so young. I thought only older children could be hosted.
Since most children who are chosen for a hosting program are at least seven or eight years old, it is unusual for a child this young to be hosted. However, his orphanage believes Ian's autism diagnosis is incorrect and felt strongly that his best chance of being a adopted would be to be hosted. In addition to advocating, his host family has a number of specialists lined up who will be providing evaluations pro bono. 

If I'm interested in adopting one of the host children, what should I do?
Contract Great Wall China Adoption at 512-323-9595.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Finding Ian's Forever Family

This boy, who is going by the nickname of Ian, will arrive tomorrow from China for a month's stay with a host family in Minneapolis. He's only four years old and was abandoned at age two for reasons we may never know. 
Ian has been living in an orphanage in China and needs a family and I know there's a family out there who needs Ian. However, without coming to the United States at the tender age of four, there's a very strong possibility Ian will never meet his forever family.

According to an advocate who's heavily involved in China hosting program,
"This little boy has a big label in his file, a file that was created when he first came into the orphanage at two years old. That label is autism. But, looking back at his history, the orphanage and our agency think that this diagnosis is potentially INACCURATE. He was shut down when he came. He is now active, lively, and has normal behavior according to the orphanage director. But that autism label can not be changed in his file. It will forever follow him."
I know how labels or inaccurate diagnoses can hurt a child's chance of being adopted. My daughter was misdiagnosed with cerebral palsy, which is crazy, because anyone who meets her can clearly tell she does NOT have CP. But that was the label her file contained, and even though she was a young, otherwise healthy girl - the epitome of the child so many families adopting from China seek to be matched with - families passed her over.  

I know the odds are stacked even more heavily against Ian.  He's a boy. He's already four.  And he's labeled as autistic. Adoption takes a huge leap of faith, and even more so when children have special needs, as all the children do who are eligible for international adoption from China. If the autism diagnosis is incorrect, it needlessly scares families away.  And even if it's correct, the needs of children with autism varies so much that such a label alone does little to prepare families.

This is why Ian's host family has set up evaluations with specialists who will help identify his medical needs.  But just as important, Ian's host family and other advocates will have the opportunity to get to know this little boy in a way that an adoption file of just a couple pages will never be able to convey. With our knowledge of who Ian is as a child, and not a label, we can advocate for him and encourage you to advocate for him as well.  

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Goodbye Kindergarten!

It wasn't that long ago that Chris and I returned from the hospital with a brand new baby and no freakin' clue what we were doing.  With nurses no longer attending to us, it took both of us (and a little bit of arguing between us) to figure out how to even feed him. From that awkward start, I find it hard to believe that our little baby completed kindergarten today.
I saw Oliver grow up a lot this year.  He went from being nervous about school and only liking it to truly loving it. He devours chapter books as fast as someone will read them to him, he discovered a love of drawing and his handwriting improved so much that had printed his name on a piece of his artwork and I assumed an adult had written it. He made friends on his own and developed such an attachment to his classmates that he told Chris he wishes he could be with the same 24 kids through college. 
Oliver received the "Sports Star of the Year" award from his gym teacher, who told me that Oliver displayed a good attitude each class, showed good sportsmanship and was always willing to try a new sport or activity.
It was not only a year of grow for Oliver, but also for Chris and me as parents.  As a friend with a first grader in the school told me, it takes nearly the whole year for parents to figure out how "to do kindergarten" and he promised me that next year will feel less chaotic. Grade school is a lot busier than preschool and it was an adjustment to keep on all the field trips, supplies needed and events to attend. There were times I felt like I was one step behind what was going on even though Oliver's teacher kindly sent out a detailed e-mail every week to keep us parents in the loop.  We also had to learn when to let go of things we weren't completely satisfied with and when to step in and advocate for Oliver. 

Some of the favorite parts of the year for Chris were the times he was able to pick Oliver up from school because Oliver hopped in the car pumped to tell his dad everything he had done that day and excitement radiated from him. My favorite part came near the end of the school year when I had a conversation with Oliver in German. It was a very simple one about what he did that day and an upcoming trip to the cabin, yet it was truly amazing.  Oliver can't read yet and wasn't formally taught German, yet he could have a conversation with me. Since I didn't marry a German, I never imagined I would have a child who would learn how to speak the language. 

Earlier this week the entire family attended an end-of-the-year program in Oliver's kindergarten classroom.  The kids sang us songs (in German of course) and each child received the gift of a book. Then we watched a slideshow of pictures from the school year, and as I watched the pictures of events I wasn't present for flash up on the screen and the children laughed and reminisced with each other, it was more apparent than ever that Oliver has entered the next part of his life where he's making his own memories separate from Chris and me.  
Each child received a book that reminded the teacher of him or her. Oliver received the Bremen Town Musicians, a famous German fairy tale, in honor of our au pair Celina.
In her last final remarks to her students and their families, Oliver's teacher broke down in tears talking about what a wonderful class she had this year and about much she learned from them about how to be good people. She spoke of her confidence that they will achieve great things in first grade and in all the years to follow.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Fading Memories

Soren was barely three and a half years old when we came home with Kiera and Matteo. He knows he stayed at his Grandma and Grandpa's house while we were "at China" as he worded it, but when we pressed him for his memories of that time, he thought intently before finally answering that he thought he made a fort while we were gone. Really, that's all he could give us. He insists though that he remembers coming to the airport and that Kiera was carrying an orange backpack and wearing a purple shirt and that his dad was the first person he hugged.  Okay, he got that correct. However, most other details are far fuzzier or incorrect.

Oliver remembers a little more, yet surprisingly not as much as I would have thought since he was five and a half at the time.  He remembers minor details, like that the bitter winter winds rattled the windows at Grandm and Grandpa's house and more monumental ones, like Skyping with us and even some of the reactions Matteo had during what was probably his first ever Skype session. Oliver rattled off many more details of the night we arrived home and said that what surprised him the most about Kiera and Matteo was that they were really little.  He had thought they would be Soren's size. (Although, they quickly caught up.) 

What surprised me the most about their memories is that neither remembers a time when Matteo and Kiera were not their brother and sister. This was especially surprising of Oliver, who has clear memories of meeting them for the first time and had a reasonably good understanding of the adoption process.  Yet when we had Oliver and Soren recall special memories that occurred before Kiera and Matteo came home, like being at the cabin with Grandma and Grandpa, neither could explain where their other two siblings were.

Oliver and Soren know that Kiera and Matteo came into our family differently than they did, but for them, those are just minor facts.  What matters most is that they are all siblings and they can't imagine it any other way. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

2nd Annual Strength of Moms Retreat

A year and a half ago, my friend Dawn and I lamented that it's a shame that given how much fun our group of friends has together, that we don't actually travel somewhere together, just us moms. Wouldn't it be nice to hang out without being interrupted by our children or planning our day around their needs? The more we talked about it, the more we realized that if this is something we wanted to do, why wouldn't we try to make it happen?  Maybe we were intimidated by the word "travel," which makes us think of a longer trip involving a plane; i.e., time and money, which are in short supply for those of us with young children and exorbitant daycare costs.  So we started small, because honestly, it's not about where we go or for how long, it's about spending time with our friends.  I suggested that all we needed was a cabin in the woods and a free weekend.

Out of that conversation came what was to become known as the annual "Strength of Moms Retreat."  We purposefully called it a "retreat," because we know moms have trouble taking time for themselves, but might feel like they could justify leaving town for a "retreat". And we refer to it as an annual retreat because we knew it would be so awesome that we'd want to do it again. And we did.  Even though it poured on us last year and a tornado warning interrupted our dinner and sent us seeking cover in the basement, we still had a fabulous time and came back for our second annual retreat last weekend.

So what do a group of women do on a girls weekend? My friend's husband (who will remain nameless) thinks this is what happened.

Our weekend actually looked more like this. 
A little wine and a game of cards. Okay, Cards of Humanity did get a little raunchy, but once 11:00 p.m. rolled around, we lamented how late it was and crawled into our beds to enjoy a night of sleep with no children to wake us up.

Much of the weekend was pretty chill, which is how we hoped it would be. We went for walks, took naps, sunbathed on the pontoon in the middle of the lake and ate well.  And we did a lot of talking.  Connecting with other moms is the most important and meaningful part of the weekend for me. We've celebrated a lot of joys over the years, but the group that came together last weekend has also endured many challenges from divorces to illnesses to diagnoses that suddenly pose an unknown future for our children.  Amidst a lot of laughter, there were also some tears.  Some of the moms are new friends and others have been with me since the early weeks of my parenting journey, but we were a camaraderie of moms all in the same stage of life and to be together for a weekend was pretty darn special.