Oliver, Kirsten, Chris and Soren

Oliver, Kirsten, Chris and Soren

Friday, July 31, 2015

Male Au Pairs

Our au pair, Marcel, gets a lot of strange looks and questions when he's out with our four kids.  Strangers recognize that he's not the kids' father, because that would be a lot of children for a guy only in his early 20s.  But if he's not their dad, then they can come up with no other explanation for why he would have four children in his care.  Given how close in age my kids are, I'm often asked whether I'm running a daycare.  Marcel thought it was odd that no one has ever asked him this and that's when I explained that the reason is probably because so few people think of men as caregivers.  The male caregiver concept is literally not among the array of possibilities in strangers' minds. 

Having a male au pair solicits a lot of intrigue and questions.  Male au pairs are admittedly in the minority, with only one in ten au pairs through our agency being men. Not many people even know what an au pair is, let alone know one who happens to be a guy, so I get that it's a new concept for people. When others learn that we have an au pair, one of their first questions is to ask where she is from and I correct them that the she is actually a he.  Some admit they didn't realize that men are allowed to be au pairs, some think it's really awesome and others, in an attempt to rationalize why anyone would choose a male au pairs, say they're probably a good option if you have only boys.  And as curious as everyone is about having a male au pair, many end the conversation with a declaration they could still never have a male au pair. 

Sadly male au pairs receive not only a lot of unwanted attention, but they face A LOT of bias.  People think they're all gay, or if not, then they must be cold and not capable of being affectionate with kids.  Even that being affectionate part raises suspicions because in my conversations with other parents, worries about pedophiles comes up every single time. 

This worry comes from parents whose female au pairs have crashed the family car with their children in it, driven without their children in car seats, dated sketchy men, had those sketchy men around their children without the host parents' knowledge, lost their temper with their children and hit them. Of course those are the horror stories.  But my host family community is full of stories of au pairs who clearly do not like children or have no idea what to do with them, who spend the majority of their time on their phones, while ignoring the children, or nap on the job or who have left their young charges unattended in an unfenced-in backyard.  Women who can't cook, who are slobs, who lack common sense, who arrive back to their host family's house falling down drunk. Women with eating disorders or insecurities who have body image issues they are displaying in front of their host children.  The host parents complain to other host parents, and we all cry "Rematch!" and yet some host parents still give second, third or infinity chances. 

As awful as the thought of sexual abuse is, what's even more awful is when you think about all the other ways your children can be neglected, abused, ignored or have their lives put in danger.  I know that sexual abuse is most likely perpetrated by someone known to your children, but I also know it's still rare.  It's all this other stuff I worry about, the exact things host parents who have said they could never have a male au pair because they don't trust a person with a penis around their children, (yup, one host mom told me that) have reported their female au pairs having done to their children. 

Whoever you decide to have watch your children, there's so much trust you put in them.  You trust they'll keep them safe by properly buckling them into their car seats, holding their hands when they cross the street, never taking their eyes off them when swimming, not letting people you've never met into your house, not hanging out with people you wouldn't want around your children and the list goes on.  Thankfully, I've never had once iota of concern about my children's safety in Marcel's care.  

I don't know if I ever explicitly told Marcel that for anyone he meets, he becomes the poster child for all male au pairs, but he's probably figured it out given how often I tell him how often people ask me what it's like to have a male au pair.  He probably doesn't realize how much I sing his praises from the rooftops.  I brag about how he active he is with the kids and how he gets four kids packed up and picnic lunches made to spend the day outside somewhere.  In the winter when others were complaining their au pairs were spending too much time at home cooped up in the house, Marcel got my kids out of the house every single day, whether it was just to drive down the street to tot time at the local rec center or to really spend time outside with them by taking them sledding.  I talk about how calm and flexible he is.  No matter how often our plans change at the last minute, he cheerfully changes course.  I've never heard Marcel yell or lose his temper with my children, despite how I as the parent have not modeled the behavior I expect out of him.  He can be affectionate and silly with the kids, but will also discipline the kids according to how we taught him. 

My praises are preaching to the choir though.  So often friends report back to the positive encounters they had with Marcel, like how they saw him and the kids at the park and that he was playing with the kids the entire time.  These stories make my heart swell.

Marcel has been excellent as a childcare provider, but when you have an au pair, that's only half the equation.  Because au pairs live with you, they need to be good roommates as well.  I also sing Marcel's praises as an au pair with zero drama.  I attribute that to his personality rather than his sex, but either way, we have never heard a single complaint from him about how he doesn't like this or that or how another au pair has a better situation.  We have not heard one peep about a romantic relationship gone bad or a tiff with a friend.  He greets us with a cheerful good morning and makes a point of saying goodbye to us before he heads out the door to meet friends.  He's always been respectful of our home and our car and our rules. 

As we went through the matching process again this spring, I secretly hoped we would match with another guy.  Since our one and only au pair has been a guy, that's all I know.  I'm honestly just a creature of habit.  But we go into the matching process looking for the best match - male or female - and this time around, that person happens to be a woman. We are incredibly excited about welcoming our next au pair, but will always be thankful to Marcel who made our first au pair experience a great one, and who might possibly have changed the hearts of countless parents he met this year. 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Shared List Stats

A China adoption advocacy blog, Red Thread Advocates, recently wrote a blog post about the make-up of the Shared List.  The CCCWA maintains what is called a "shared list" of children available for adoption who have not been matched through orphanage partnerships, from an agency's designated list (made up of files agencies pull from the Shared List) or on release night when all the files newly prepared are released to the Shared List.  Under all three scenarios, young minor needs children (especially girls) are matched almost instantly.  Over 2,000 children at any one time wait on the list to be chosen. Many wait years to be matched and some turn 14 and age out.  Since it's become a personal mission of mine to change the public perception that the only children available for adoption from China are girls, I want to mention that almost three-fourths of the children on the Shared List are boys. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Six-Month Post-Adoption Report

What a difference a couple of months makes.  Back in February when our social worker visited us to complete our one-month post-adoption report, we were still adjusting to our new normal, just embarking on a never-ending series of doctors appointments and not sleeping much thanks to a someone who preferred sharing our bed over sleeping on his own.  And yet we were doing so well that I assumed that things couldn't get any better. 

Fast forward a couple of months and so much has changed.  I've gone back to work, Kiera started preschool, Matteo had his palate repair and got cool new glasses, both kids stopped napping, everyone goes to bed in their own beds, and things are going even better.  Our normal doesn't feel new anymore, it just feels, well, normal.

Our social worker asked if we had any questions for her, but we really didn't.  It's not that everything is perfect - I don't feel like we're 100% there with attachment, both kids need speech therapy and we won't know for another couple of months whether Matteo needs a follow-up surgery on his palate.  But we feel like we have a plan in place and are managing these issues just fine.

The only question I had was whether the agency ever hears back from the CCCWA regarding the post-adoption reports the social workers submit.  Even though our social worker dutifully schedules the post-adoption visits, writes thorough reports and submits them on time, she never hears anything once she submits the reports.  I like to think of the required post-adoption reports as a way of relaying information on the well-being of our children to all the people who cared for them before we met them, but I know the reality is that most likely no one but CCCWA officials has access to the reports.  For all I know, they're never even read and collect dust on a shelf.  Nonetheless I hope someone is reading all these reports and is comforted knowing that for China's children scattered across the world, they are so loved and well-cared by their new families. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Adoption Video

A fellow adoptive mom leaves for China TOMORROW and still found the time to put the finishing touches on the video she made of our journey to Kiera and Matteo.  I'm thrilled to be able to share our story in pictures since I was unable to post pictures of our trip to my blog while in China.  The video is super long - 37 minutes - but when I took 1,400 pictures in China alone, it was difficult to whittle down the photos of the kids' early lives, our trip and then their first five months home. 

The video starts with the first pictures we ever saw or Kiera and Matteo, their "referral" pictures, and then shows pictures from earlier in their life.  We actually got very few updates prior to meeting Kiera and Matteo, and most of the pictures we received after they returned home.

We left for China on January 21, 2015.  The beginning of our trip included a couple of sightseeing days in Beijing and a chance to explore our children's birth country.  Even if you haven't been to Beijing, you might recognize the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and of course the Great Wall. 

From Beijing we flew south to Hefei the capital of Anhui province.  We met Matteo on Monday, January 26, 2015 and finalized his adoption the following morning.  We stayed the week in Hefei and had the opportunity to visit his foster family in Fuyang and the Anhui Healing Home, where Matteo stayed before and after his cleft lip surgery.  The home is operated by the organization Love Without Boundaries. 

At the end of the week we flew with Matteo to Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong, Kiera's birth province.  Just like with Matteo, Kiera was driven in from her birth city and we met her in a civil affairs office on Monday, February 2, 2015 and finalized her adoption the following day.  We spent a week and a half in Guangzhou, where we attended to official adoption business and did some sightseeing.  We also traveled twice to Shenzhen to visit Kiera's foster family, orphanage and the hospital where she was born.

All adoptions are finalized by the American government in Guangzhou, so we were able to stay put for the final steps of the adoption process.  This included our appointment at the U.S. consulate.  Two days after our appointment, we flew out of Hong Kong back to the United States.  Kiera and Matteo became U.S. citizens when we landed in Seattle and forever part of our family when we landed in Minnesota on February 12, 2015.  

Adoption stories never end at the airport and so final pictures show their first five months home. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Family Trip, Not a Vacation

I stumbled across a link to the blog post "A Vacation or Trip: A Helpful Guide for Parents" on another blog I read that talks about the au pair program.  The commenter thought the post would be helpful for those of us host families taking au pairs on vacation with us.  How timely given that we'll be traveling with our new au pair first to the North Shore for a wedding and then to North Dakota for an all-American family vacation.

Even though I laughed out loud at the post, I should probably have cried, because you guessed it, according to the guide, our family vacation in August is definitely a trip.  We will be four young children, a new au pair we first met two weeks prior and two stressed out parents packed in a minivan for what Google Maps assures me is only an eight-hour-and-nine-minute drive, one way.  Even before we set out on our trip, I will have packed for at least four other people before I have a chance to pack for myself, cooked and frozen hotdishes so I have less to cook on my "vacation" (who are we kidding, even on vacation I will be responsible for making sure seven people are fed three square meals a day), and gotten everything ready for Oliver's first day of kindergarten, which occurs two days after we get home from said trip.

So why do we do this to ourselves?  The reality is we don't have much choice at this stage in our lives.  Chris and I do like to travel, but with four young children, the only way we can make a trip happen is if we bring them with us on a kid-friendly trip.  Teddy Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota may sound like an odd vacation destination for those outside the Upper Midwest, but it was a strategic pick.  It's somewhere at least one of us hasn't been (Chris), is less than a day's drive (so no extra expense and hassle of unloading four children into a hotel room for the night), we could rent a place with multiple bedrooms and a kitchen (since eating out with a family of seven is expensive) and the national park is beautiful and appeals to all ages.  We won't be able to do extensive hiking (or maybe even minimal hiking) with young children and we'll probably end up at the local pool on at least one occasion because that will carry more appeal to our children than the petrified forest a nature-loving friend raved about, but such is life for us now.

My hope is that despite how much not a vacation this trip will be for Chris and me, that our kids will grow up to love travel and our new au pair will appreciate seeing a part of the United States she never would have otherwise seen.  And of course, after we've put in our time in a minivan criss-crossing the country on our own little version of National Lampoon's Vacation, Chris and I still hope we will take a real vacation. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

Second Shift

There are days I leave work not relieved my work day is over.  Because it technically isn't.  Once I leave my office, I'm preparing to start my second shift at home.  As any parent knows, work is never really over. 

I love my family, but being a parent is hard work.  Relentless hard work.  I'm tired a lot of the time because there are never enough hours in the day to do everything I need to do, let alone what I want to do.  My second shift at home is faster-paced than any day at the office.  I feel the pressure to simultaneously greet my children and hear about their day, make dinner, clean up the day's mess so we can eat at a clean dining room table, set the table and comfort my children, who inevitably start squabbling while I'm trying to make dinner. And that's all before dinner!

The rare nights that dinner is peaceful, meaning the kids have no complaints about what's for dinner and happily eat it, is really just like being in the eye of a hurricane.  It's a brief respite from the craziness where I maybe sit in my chair for ten minutes and actually eat.  Often well before I've eaten my last bite of dinner, the kids are finished and I'm directing them to clear their plates and clean-up begins.  There are plates to scrape, a dishwasher to load (thank goodness for this modern invention!), pots and pans to scrub, a filthy dining room table and chairs to wipe down, a floor to sweep and trash to take out.

The third hurdle of the evening is bedtime.  Four children who need to change into their pajamas, go to the bathroom and brush their teeth. As we settle into my bed to read four bedtime stories, I'm assessing their likeliness of falling asleep quickly and how many trips back into their rooms I'll need to make to ask them to settle down or refill a water bottle or give another hug.  That's because post-kid-bedtime and pre-my-bedtime is my sacred time to finish cleaning up and maybe have some time to myself to decompress.

This is what my second shift is like night after night.  

The hardest part for me as a parent is to not stress out over the chaos of being pulled in too many directions. It's hard to ignore the guilt for what I don't have time to do or what I feel I should be doing when all I want to do is relax.  I know this is just a phase when my kids are so little and need me to do so much for them and that one day, sooner than I can possibly imagine at this point in my life, the house will be quiet and there will be no more second shift.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Cleft Palate Repair Follow-Up

If you had asked me a month ago how Matteo has been doing since his cleft palate repair in March, I would have told you we were expecting another surgery in the fall.  While much of his palate did heal like the doctor said it would, even after it looked like it was falling apart a week after surgery, his palate still has a sizable hole and any time he sneezed, lots of food shot out of his nose.  Then one day I realized I couldn't remember the last time I had wiped his nose and I began to have a glimmer of hope that another surgery wasn't necessarily a given. 

Last week Matteo had an appointment with the craniofacial surgeon and a craniofacial speech language pathologist at Gillette's.  The pathologist sat on the floor of her office and using toys, books, pictures and games, enticed Matteo through a series of exercises to evaluate what sounds he can and can't make.  He was a model patient in that he was eager to please and very curious.  He loved the attention and had no idea he was at therapy. 

The surgeon believed that the hole I could see in the hard palate is a fistula, which means it goes through both the oral and nasal palates, because the pathologist had observed moderate hypernasality in Matteo when he talked.  Ideally there would be no fistula, but the presentation of one isn't necessarily a problem if nothing is coming out of a child's nose and a child can speak clearly.  The fact that we have seen a significant decrease in anything coming of Matteo's nose is a very promising sign.  Of course we don't know yet how his speech will progress until we've given speech therapy some time.  Thus the surgeon wants Matteo to continue speech therapy for six months and reassess his degree of hypernasality.  If there isn't enough improvement, he will probably need the fistula repaired this winter.