Thursday, April 7, 2016

Chunky oatmeal, hunger strikes, and God's amazing love

Seven days ago I sat nervously in the waiting room. A sense of dread made my stomach churn as I watched Mila. She was blissfully unaffected by my nerves as she performed chair gymnastics and charmed the sweat pants-clad people waiting their turn for physical therapy. Two weeks prior we had been in this same office. Mila had wowed the occupational therapist and we had a list of feeding tasks to accomplish before coming back. However, we had only one thing checked off that list that day.  Mila could eat peanut butter. That's it. No chunks, no dipping, no 'hard' food items anywhere near her mouth. We had failed. I had failed. 

We had our session. The OT didn't seem too disappointed as Mila happily participated in 'snacking.'  We were instructed to make her modified food- things she likes but with a chunky twist. So yogurt with graham cracker dust sprinkled on top. Apple sauce with cracker crumbs inside. Purées with small chunks. We call them 'parfaits.'  And in our session, Mila munched down on all these things, much to our OT's delight.  "No more formula and only one pediasure drink per day. Lots of parfaits. And see you in a month."

We went 18 meals without Mila eating. Hunger strike. All the things she ate in front of the OT were refused at home. She was hungry- at mealtime she would climb into her high chair and eagerly babble.  Her food would be put in front of her and immediately her mouth would turn down and her tiny hand would smack the table. She might take a bite or two but would then spit out everything and refuse to eat anymore. Her face lost the plumpness that it had gained the last four months home and her behavior tanked along with her blood sugar. Meal times were an angry battle and every other in between time we all tolerated (or didn't tolerate) an angry, hungry tiny three year old. I struggled mightily with accepting her mealtime rejections and dealing with the bad behavior all other times. I tried everything I could think of. We tried letting her self feed.  We tried feeding her.  We tried tricking her into tasting her food.  We even let her favorite buddy JJ try to feed her a big spoonful of applesauce with his chubby baby hand.  She turned it all down.  Frustration. I dreaded meal times and the battle that would ensue. I hated seeing Mila get so excited to eat and then dump her food on the floor or spit it out all over her clothes. I took it personally and frankly I could feel myself start to place my frustration on Mila instead of on the situation.  I wanted someone to blame for this problem and the tiny human covered in chunky oatmeal and screaming at me was a good target. But I knew that was wrong so I distanced myself emotionally from her. 

At six days into the hunger strike, I reached my breaking point. I was scared that she was losing too much weight, angry that we were in this situation in the first place, and just sad that I felt myself growing further and further away from Mila. After a day of phone calls and email exchanges with some medical people, I got a few more guidelines to follow for this feeding plan. But what had a greater impact on my heart was admitting all this out loud to my bible study and having a few close friends share words of wisdom and encouragement to me. I was at once convicted that my perspective of this was completely wrong. I was basing my love and affection for Mila on what she could- or couldn't - do. Her performance was a prerequisite for her acceptance and I was way off base. Running parallel to this, as it ALWAYS is, was my relationship with God. I felt that Mila's failure to eat was my failure to feed her.  Her rejection of food, and subsequently her rejection of me was because I wasn't good enough.  I was assuming that God's acceptance of me (because who else's really matters?) was based on my performance... And I was completely wrong again. 

Why is this lesson so hard to learn? Once I 'get it' - everything changes. God's love isn't provisional or limited or dependent. My love, on my own, is all of those things. But thankfully I am not dependent on my provisional, limited love. 

"There is no fear in love. Instead, perfect love drives out fear...We love because He first loved us." 1 John 4:18-19

This was a verse I turned to often while we were waiting to bring Mila home. I even made a necklace loosely based on this verse that said "Let your faith be bigger than your fear."  At the time I felt that we were stepping over our fear, in faith and love to follow God's call for us to adopt. There were many scary unknowns about the whole process and God was showing me that His love - and what He was calling our family to do in faith- was far greater than my fears. He still is speaking that message to me now that Mila is home. My fears aren't about an adoption failing because China didn't deem us qualified. Nor are they about  unknown health conditions that we would discover upon meeting Mila.  And they aren't even about what would happen to our family and the boys with another child- possibly one with special needs- coming into our family. My faith is bigger than those fears because God's love is bigger than those things. Ironically, the fear I struggle the most with is believing that God's love doesn't apply to me.  That I am not enough for Him to love. And here, manifested in an 18 meal hunger strike by my resilient daughter, that fear flashed to center stage and I let it take over. 

Meal 19 Mila ate all of her food. After the prayers of my friends, the confession of my heart, and the reality call that God's love is enough and applies to ALL, we are on a different trajectory. Meal 20, Mila ate her food again and had second servings. Meal 21 she ate a few bites and refused any more. But she is NOT defined by her ability or inabilities. Mila is my daughter, loved, chosen, wanted.  More importantly, she is a child of God, who's love for His children never falters. He sets the lonely in families- and as we say in this house, family is forever. 

And through these sometimes epic and sometimes insignificant battles in our lives, I am learning that I am a daughter, loved, chosen, wanted by a never failing, good, good, Father.  



Mila may choose to strike for another 18 meals. She might have enough will power to actually endanger her health and cause us to abandon the feeding plan we have. 


I hope and pray that this isn't the result but what I will continually remind myself of is that God's love is deeper and stronger than the willpower of a fighting three year old and more steady and sure than the insecurities and doubts of a 30 something year old who has striven for perfection and acceptance her whole life. God's love drives out fear and empowers us to love others.  May we fix our eyes on these truths and live like we truly believe that God's love is enough!


Friday, March 11, 2016

90 days

Ninety days. Twelve weeks.  Three months. That's how long Mila has been HOME. I vacillate between feeling like we're just barely staying afloat and figuring this new life out and being perplexed that it's only been twelve weeks- hasn't she been here forever?  Today was one of those 'it's only been twelve week?' kind of days. We began working through one more Mila mystery at our first occupational therapy appointment today. We are seeing a 'Feeding Team' to help introduce Mila to solid foods.


We arrived a little early but Mila was having a wonderland time finding 'treasures' in my purse and being confounded by the automatic doors in the dr office. Our therapist Katherine called us back eventually and took us to a small room with kid- sized tables and chairs. She read through the notes in Mila's file and handed me a stack of articles about picky eaters. She then asked, "so, how long has she been having feeding trouble?"  I answered, "She's been in our family for three months..." 

"You're kidding?! She seems so settled! And you adopted her?"

I gave her a little background... And then she started crying. The therapist. Not Mila. 

"I am just SO excited to be working with you guys!"

We spent the next hour dipping graham crackers in apple sauce and practicing chewing on the sides of our mouths. There were lots of exclamations of "Amazing! She is just amazing!" And analogies of watching a flower bloom on a time lapse video (seriously- we apparently got the overly-poetic occupational therapist!). I left with a set of instructions, a plan in place!, and directions to disregard the picky eating articles since that's clearly not the issue. And we managed to get squeezed into a follow up appointment in a few weeks (despite a fully booked month for the office). 


So we are putting spoons away and playing with our food.  There are plans to introduce dipping and thicker, stickier textures to encourage her little tongue to move food towards her teeth. And so far (and it's only been two meals and a couple hours so early I know) she's eating it up! (Pun intended!). It helps that her partner in crime, Leo, is eager to play along and try new foods and play with whipped cream with his fingers too.


Here's to our next twelve weeks- whatever progress they may hold, we will walk that path one step at a time with our Mighty Mila. 


Tuesday, March 1, 2016

3 Months!

A long car ride in busy traffic, photos and signatures on lots of paperwork, one very solemn and scared  little girl.  Afraid to trust, weary and suspicious of this strange person called 'mama.'  The next month brought her first plane ride, first ride in a car seat, and insta-family. It also brought home and brothers and a big sloppy dog that patiently waited for her to fall in love. And slowly, each day things became a little more permanent, a little more forever.  And mama wasn't so bad anymore either.  The next month we experienced doctor appointments and nursery at church.  Again, trust was strengthened as mama and dad always came back.  Siblings fought but began learning that three was better than two. And though there are boundaries and a new favorite word- "No!"- we are all settling in. Three months. Over three pounds gained, new language being understood and slowly sampled, physical milestones sailing by (she runs! She jumps!), and lots and lots of smiles.  Three months since family day Mighty Mila!






Thursday, February 18, 2016

Super glue, super kids, super God

I was dangling off of our folding ladder, half way out of the attic.  The dust and insulation made my eyes water and my toes turned white from griping my flip flops - not the best ladder climbing shoes. We were switching out toys- one oversized concrete mixer and a garbage truck exchanged for two yellow pick-up trucks. Corbin, being the oldest and responsible one was a few feet back from ladder, ready to 'catch' while his little brother and sister were banished to the playroom after too many attempts to climb the ladder.  I began to lower the first truck down but it slipped out of my hands.  Bouncing off the ladder and crashing into the light switch on its way down, I was plunged into darkness and Corbin barely manage to scoot out of the way. The truck landed with a thunk, and a one legged construction worker figurine popped out on the carpet. 

" Aww mom- he's broken!"

I glanced around for the missing leg, which was nowhere to be found. "No he's not- he's just a one legged construction worker!"

"But what can he do with one leg mom?"

"Oh he can drive a truck and operate the crane.  He can be the architect or the carpenter- in fact he can do pretty much anything!"

I pulled my iPad out as we released Corbin's younger siblings from their captivity. "Do you want to see some  kids who can do all the things you can do but may not have legs?" I asked him as I pulled up my favorite special needs/Chinese adoption Facebook group. With all kids crammed around me to get a better view, we flipped through pictures and noted a little gymnast missing one forearm, a boy without legs who rode a battery-operated tractor around while his brothers peddled bikes, and many other amazing kiddos who clearly were not letting a missing limb or differently shaped fingers get in their way of being kids. Corbin was in awe and gave his one-legged construction worker the seat of honor in his yellow pick-up truck. Leo meandered back to his other toys but Mila remained on my lap, staring intently at the Chinese faces on my iPad. 


We know that Mila was close to one or two of the young children at her orphanage. I have a few photos of her life before us- her referral photos, a group shot of all the kids from the orphanage, and a couple pictures of Mila with another child.  We were only a few weeks home when I showed her the group photo.  She looked closely at it with recognition and then proceeded to melt down and be inconsolable for the rest of the day. We put photos away after that. At just three years old, the risk is that without seeing these photos often, she will completely forget those friendly faces. Yet, at only three, she lacks the communication to tell us if seeing the photos are comforting or harmful to her. Are they really friendly faces?  With her so transfixed on the other Chinese children, I decided to try again.  Instead of pulling up the more personal photos that we had received from the orphanage, I instead showed her one of her friend's referral photos- a little boy who will be joining his forever family in the next few months. I remembered that this little boy was perhaps closest to Mila and that the two of them called each other 'brother' and 'sister.'  She squealed at seeing his familiar face and jabbered off in her special language. Her excitement drew Corbin and Leo away from their trucks and soon all kids were asking about and talking to the little boy on the screen. I said his Chinese name quietly and Mila perked up again. We looked at a few other kids from her orphanage and she recognized them as well. 

We flipped through photos of our trip to China and she happily tapped Austin's face and said 'Baba' and my photo as well and declared proudly, 'Mama!'  The first photo we took of the three of us - squished together in a van with Mila looking very afraid- was received well, but from there on she began to withdraw as she saw photos of herself in China. Finally she hopped off my lap and turned to some of her coping methods that we have seen all but disappear in recent days. I turned the iPad off, scooted the boys back to their trucks, and spent some time snuggling Mila. She was soon smiling and giggling again. 

What started as an attempt to avoid super gluing another 'guy' turned into a moment of recognizing that there was life before becoming a Nielsen for Mila. I am reminded of this more often than you might think- as we make the rounds of doctor appointments, there are always more boxes left blank for unknown than checked yes or no on the forms.  Her ability to put shoes and socks on by herself serve as reminders of some other woman's hands who must have patiently showed her how to stretch the socks out or untie the laces before fitting her foot in. And when I first climbed that ladder that started this whole crazy story, Mila took one look at my lower half dangling out of the ceiling and began sobbing and stomping the floor. I just have no idea...

So how does one honor an unknown past?  Because that truly is our desire. Not to fabricate a fairytale or portray a grand rescue, but to tell the truth,  as much of it as we know, as she is able to receive it.  Our time in China was perhaps the most challenging two weeks of my life. Yet I look back fondly and with nostalgia, a love for a new people and a new place that did not exist before that amazing adventure. At this point, our time together in China is not a fond memory for Mila.  I don't know if it ever will be.  But as the one entrusted to keeping the fragmented pieces of her past, I will do my best to express my gratitude for unknown hands that tied little shoes, unknown friends who reached through the bars of cribs, and most importantly, an unknown mother who chose life for her daughter even though it would mean making another heart breaking choice later on.  I am honored and humbled to have this responsibility and forever grateful for all the unknowns that brought our little girl to us. 


The common phrase is "demons in your past".  And while I know there are things that we are probably better off not knowing the specifics on regarding Mila's first three years, I'd rather focus on the God of Mila's past.  The God who protected her from inside her mother's womb, watched over her as she was found outside the orphanage gates, provided for her physically in a destitute and remote village, and instilled in her a fiery spirit that would persevere despite her cold surroundings.  A God that redeemed a hopeless situation for a little girl in China and a God who is teaching a very average family how to love extravagantly, just as He loves them.   The God of her past who will hopefully be the a God of her future as she grows to trust and love Him.



Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Only love can...

The month of love is upon us. February now also hosts Chinese New Year - a new holiday for our family to celebrate. So as I sit under our red construction paper lanterns strung along side blow up hearts and Xs and Os, I am pondering love and my little Chinese daughter napping in the other room.  


While we were in process to adopt, stories of those home and the transformation their children experienced was inspiring. The rallying cry was often "only love can."  Only love can mend this broken heart. Only love can make a family.  Only love can give this child a chance. What I've learned recently is that only my love "can't" do it all.  It can't heal my daughter, teach her safety, gain her trust.  It can't repair hurt feelings in my little boy who has lost his status as baby nor can it make every situation of stolen toys or lack of attention fair.  It can't bridge the three year gap that my daughter was not my daughter and fill me with the motherly feelings that I have for my kids who were with me from birth.  My love can't patiently show consistent connection with my little girl who seeks out other adults for positive attention as a self preservation means.  Daily I am reminded how much my love falls short.  


Love is patient- my love dried up at the many opportunities to be patient. A perfect example is corralling three little ones into car seats, waiting for them all to either refuse to sit down, refuse to let me buckle them, or refuse to buckle themselves into said car seats. My love is certainly not patient. 

Love is kind- too often kindness is sacrificed in my house.  Pajamas put on a little too roughly, good night tuck-ins rushed through, special requests denied just out of weariness. Kindness matters. But my weariness wins out more often than not. 

Love is not jealous- the online community of adoptive families is wonderful- but also misleading. I know what people show on Facebook is only a tiny piece of reality and yet it is increasingly easy to feed jealousy rather than respect for others and contentment in my own circumstances. My thoughts are not fueled by love but by jealousy as I wonder if I am the only adoptive mom doing this all wrong. 

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things- nope. My love does not even come close. I'd rather claim the victim than accept the responsibility. My love is weak and lacking. It is disillusioned and not hopeful. And it has an amazingly short memory. Those days pining for news from China, praying fervently for a child we had not even met, so quickly forgotten when that child is home, but crumpled on the floor and twitching, overwhelmed with everything new and refusing connection with her family.  My love comes up short. Only love can... But mine certainly cannot. 

And that is where I have arrived. At the end of myself. I can do hard things- for a little while. And then my human frailty shows through the cracks. My love is not enough. But God's is.  My morning ritual of thinking though each day's potential scenarios and how I will respond to them has changed to a plea for help, a cry for an ever present reminder that I. Just. Can't. Do. It. But God can. 


"God I am at the end of myself. This is hard and I don't know what I am doing. Surely I am doing more harm than good even though I've tried so very hard to be the best. Only Your love can redeem this mess that I've made. Please let me love her with Your love." 

I love the Phil Wickman "Amazing Grace" line, 

"Who makes the orphan a son or daughter? The King of Glory.  The King above all Kings.  This is amazing grace...."

I thought we had witnessed that already when we signed the dotted line in China, giving a scared little Chinese girl our last name.  But I've come to realize that shared last names do not guarantee love. As my attempts at loving her as my daughter have fallen short, a new prayer has been added to my morning ritual, 

"God, thank you for loving me as Your daughter. Please help me love her as my daughter.  Only YOUR love can."


My amazing friends and family ask me "how are you doing?" And I've jokingly answered how our bar has been lowered- if everyone has been mostly fed, we're good! Or if we all show up with shoes on, we're doing ok!  But really, I'm not doing ok. I've watched my best efforts at being a mother, being an adoptive parent, being a Christian crumble before my eyes. I am at the end of myself. And strangely, it seems that that  is where God wants me. At the end of myself leaves plenty of room for God's love to work. And really, that's better than my best efforts any day. So, if you ask, I am not ok. This is the hardest thing I've ever done and I feel like daily I screw everything up.  But I know that that is ok, because only God's love can truly bear, believe, hope, and endure all that life has to throw at it. The bar has been dropped- not just lowered- and the freedom of allowing God to move is absolutely amazing.  


Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015

We started this year wondering who you would be, when you would join our family, what you would be like.  Now we end this year with you tucked into your own bed with a soft dolly and ridiculous 'Frozen' blanket, your two brothers sleeping across the room in their bunks. My pantry is full of soups and baby food, bottles and all their parts dry on the counter, and little girl toys are mixed with trucks and dinosaurs. Each night I fold dozens of grubby t shirts and holey boy jeans but there's a new pile of pink! and ruffled socks added to the mix. Our dog is exhausted from following three kids around all day. Each day you discover something new and each day is one more day that your brain ticks off as steady, the same, forever. We haven't left you yet little one, and each day you're beginning to realize that family really is forever.  



We went to the beach today. Your first time I'm assuming. There's so much about you that I don't know and so much that I will never know about your first three years. I don't think about that very much though but I will remember that you had a life before us and we will always honor where you came from and talk about it when you're ready.  But today was your first beach trip and it wasn't your favorite thing. But you suffered through the sand everywhere and the scary waves crashing on the shore and even smiled a few times at your crazy brothers. I think you'll learn to love the ocean someday. As you clung desperately to me during our walk down the beach, I tried to remember how much you've been through in just one month. One month! One month ago yesterday we met you in that adoption office in Guangzhou that so many families know so well. The one with the uncomfortable velvet couches and covered up ping pong table. Your tiny self was carried in by the orphanage director and when they handed you to me your face went completely flat as your eyes squeezed shut and your mouth hung open for a cry. I know that face well now. And òne month ago today, we traveled back to that office and signed the papers that promised we would never leave you or abandon you. You are now grafted into our family and as you're slowly discovering, family is forever. We had and honestly still have a long road ahead of us. But look how far you've come in one month!  One month ago, bundled in a million layers of clothing, screaming for a loss you couldn't even fathom.  And today, bare toes in the sand, screaming for your mama to save you from the seagulls overhead and the waves crashing near by. 

Time flies like seagulls at the oceanside.  Who knows where you'll be next month?  One thing I can promise, family is forever so wherever you'll be, we'll be there with you. 


Happy New Year!

Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas from our family!  Amidst the crinkled up wrapping paper and over excited little kids rushing about with new toys, I was reminded that this little pixie of a girl squealing at a new baby doll, was just a few short weeks ago waking up in an orphanage half a world away. She has come so far- physically and in every other way- in such a short amount of time.  Our family looks differently now, behaves a little differently now, and we are just relishing in the reality that our three kiddos are together, under the same roof- family. So Merry Christmas- from our FAMILY!