Friday, March 30, 2012

Curious About Adoption? Some Good Resources to Check Out!

Adoption has been on my mind a great deal lately, because May 14th will mark the fifth anniversary of adopting our daughter from China!

Our adopted daughter in 2007, just a few weeks 
after she became a member of the Molewyk family.

In the years since we brought our daughter home, I've met many people who have expressed an interest in adopting, but don't know how to get started in the process. I've also met people who have a heart for orphans and really want to help them, but don't feel called to adopt.This posting is for both sets of people. In it, I'll share some of my favorite adoption-related books and organizations, as well as some specific ways you can get involved helping orphans. First, following are two excellent adoption-related books: 

Love You More: The Divine Surprise of Adopting My Daughter, by Jennifer Grant
In this memoir, author, mother of four, and journalist Jennifer Grant chronicles the adoption of her youngest daughter, Mia, from Guatemala. Grant shares how and why she and her husband decided to adopt, as well as what the lengthy adoption process looked like. Finally, she shares about the first several years post-adoption. Throughout this book, Grant comes across as a very likeable mom—she writes in a candid, conversational manner, with moments of parenting humor that the recovering perfectionist in me greatly enjoyed.

Grant also does a nice job delving into some of the complex emotions surrounding adoption. This includes the incredible frustration when you're waiting seemingly forever to bring your child home, the buildup of anticipation and nervous anxiety when you're about to meet your child for the first time, and the moments when you feel sad for your adopted child's birth mother and wonder how she felt when she gave up her child. 

The one aspect of Grant's experience that I couldn't relate to was Mia's initial transition into her new family, which sounded like it went fairly smoothly, for the most part. Not all adoptions (including ours) go quite as smoothly, from either a physical or emotional standpoint. But this just goes to show you that adoption experiences—like any other aspect of parenting—vary from family to family.

In addition to the overall story of adopting Mia, this book does an excellent job educating readers about various adoption-related issues, which Grant skillfully weaves into the overall narrative. For example, she examines:

  • The complicated and varied motivations for adopting an orphan. 
  • Reasons why some people are militantly anti-adoption. 
  • Factors that contribute to the number of orphans in this world, including poverty, war, inadequate access to medical help, and sexual violence against women.

Something I found particularly interesting was Grant's perspective on race relations, which changed when she noticed the way others treated her adopted daughter. As a racial minority myself, I greatly appreciated her observations on this topic. For example:

"I used to think talking about race was passe, uninteresting, and no longer relevant, but now that I'm the mother of a child "of color", my vision has changed. Waiting outside our daughters' gymnastics class, two other mothers and I chat pleasantly about the program... when the class is over and the lobby fills with boys and girls looking for their mothers, one of the moms I've been chatting with bends to greet two blonde girls who have just knocked into her.

"Oh here you are, darling," she says. "Did you have fun today?" She straightens herself up and turns to find Mia standing in front of her. The smile disappears from her face.

"Excuse me," she says in a voice so cold that others stop and look.

"Hi sweetie," I almost shout. "Over here!" 

The woman sees that Mia is my daughter and attempts to smile. "Oh... she..." she mumbles. 

For now, Mia seems blissfully unaware that when some people see her, they can't get past the color of her skin. Or maybe it's not about color, but about perceived class. When I hear people make patronizing comments about the Hispanic men who mow their lawn or imitate the Spanish accent of the person clearing tables at a restaurant, I think, is that what you see when you see my beautiful daughter?" (p. 150) 

I highly recommend Love You More for anyone contemplating adoption, first because it's an interesting read, and second, because you will walk away with an expanded perspective on the many facets of adoption. To buy this book at Amazon, click here

The Waiting Child: How the Faith and Love of One Orphan Saved Another, by Cindy Champnella
We had a very good experience adopting through Great Wall China Adoption (GWCA). When I first contacted GWCA about adoption, they sent us a DVD that included interviews with various couples who had adopted through them. One of these couples was Rick and Cindy Champnella, who shared the unforgettable story of their adopted four-year-old daughter, Jaclyn. After adopting her, they discovered that she had been responsible for looking after two younger orphans in the orphanage, and she considered one of them, Xiao Xiao, her own little baby. In an interview with, adoptive mother Cindy explained: 

"She told us all these anecdotes about Xiao Xiao and another little one she took care of. She described in quite a bit of detail getting them up in the morning and dressing and feeding them. But I think even then she was most proud of the emotional support she provided—she comforted them when they cried. She held that little boy's hand in the dark when he was sad. That's what floored me—here she was herself without a mother, but she knew how to give selfless mother love to another child." 

Every day, Jaclyn worried about this little boy, and she relentlessly lobbied the Champnellas to bring him home. For various reasons, this was a request that was statistically almost impossible. But Cindy says Jaclyn never gave up: 

"One night after she'd been here about three months, to my surprise she began to pray. Her first prayer to God was for Xiao Xiao, and she continued to pray for him every single night. She never asked God for anything for herself, but she'd ask God to bring him pajamas so he wouldn't be cold at night. Or to help him not to be afraid of the dark. And she always, always begged God to help her bring him a mama. Listening to her prayers... it literally just ripped a hole in our hearts, I couldn't even imagine how God could stand to listen to those prayers. And that's what started this whole story." 

The story Champnella refers to is her book—an incredibly compelling and tragic story that will bring tears to your eyes. But happily (spoiler alert), it has a beautiful and inspiring ending that will leave you believing that God still moves heaven and earth today! You can purchase a copy at Amazon, by clicking here


Now, I'd like to introduce you to three not-for-profit organizations that do wonderful work to improve the lives of orphans.
Harmony Outreach is a Christian ministry that cares for orphans in China, Ethiopia, and Cambodia. Many have medically correctable special needs, such as heart problems or cleft lips. To improve their chances of being adopted, Harmony raises funds for surgeries, then arranges for the surgeries. Thus far, over 1,000 children in their care have been adopted! 

Ways you can get involved: sponsor a child in China, Ethiopia, or Cambodia, contribute toward surgeries for special needs orphans, go on one of their ministry trips to China or Cambodia, or sign up to receive their newsletters, which share the stories of specific children they're helping. Whenever the latest newsletter arrives, my kids actually fight over who gets to read it first! We recently had the privilege of meeting John Bentley, the founder of this ministry, along with the real life fruit of this ministry—several Chicago-area families whose adopted children were cared for by Harmony Outreach in China. This ministry is truly doing wonderful things for orphans! 

Love Without Boundaries (LWB) is a not-for-profit organization that runs foster care, education, medical, nutrition, and other programs that minister to orphans in China. 

Ways you can get involved: sponsor a child, contribute financially toward specific needs, such as cribs, winter jackets, foster care and surgeries for orphans. LWB is run by approximately 150 volunteers, and their website contains information on volunteer job opportunities. How we heard about this organization: when John and my in-laws flew to China to bring home our daughter (long, complicated story why I couldn't go), one of the families in their travel group had been fostered through LWB.  John reported that this child was very smiley and had clearly been well cared for!  

Show Hope was started by Christian singer Steven Curtis Chapman and his wife Mary Beth, who have adopted three children from China. Their website contains comprehensive information about how to adopt, as well as their grant program, which helps families pay for their adoption expenses. 

Ways you can get involved: sponsor a child, sign up to receive monthly e-mails containing prayer needs for specific orphans;  go on a short term mission/vision trip through Show Hope to clarify how God may be calling you to help orphans; volunteer for Show Hope; or download a comprehensive guide that explains how to start an adoption grant fund at your church. In addition, Show Hope has also launched various initiatives designed to raise awareness of orphan needs among teens, and motivate them to get involved in helping orphans.

On a final note, I've added an "Adoption Resources" section to the lefthand side of this blog. It contains links to all of the resources I've mentioned in this (super lengthy) blog posting. I hope you found this helpful! 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

My Misguided Quest to Raise "Normal" Children, Part 3 of 3

As I mentioned in previous postings, I've spent many years thinking about the concept of normal. It began when my two oldest children were preschoolers. As young children, they were very advanced in some ways, yet very delayed in others. For example, when my oldest son was three, he once rearranged the magnetic alphabet letters on our refrigerator to spell the first and last names of the mother and children he had ignored at a playdate earlier in the day. A few months later, he drew a picture and handed it to me. It was a detailed and accurate aerial view of the highway entrance/exit ramp down the street from our neighborhood. 

But this very same child couldn't speak in expressive sentences until age 5 1/2, and he experienced significant delays in his physical development as well. My second son developed in a similar way, but with weak fine motor skills, unusual mannerisms, and a strong willed (read: fit throwing) personality. He too didn't speak in sentences until age 5 1/2.

Clearly, this wasn't normal, and believe me, I heard about it! For many years, I received unsolicited comments about my sons' delayed development from many people, including complete strangers. Some bluntly told me I was a bad mother, others suggested that I wasn't talking enough to my kids, and one person kindly recommended that my childrens' language skills would improve if I regularly spoke English to them. (The assumption was that I spoke only Chinese to my children—despite the fact that I was born and raised in this country. Very annoying!) As a new mother, I was already insecure about my parenting abilities, and all of this feedback left me feeling increasingly incompetent.

Me and my kids during the silent years, 
when neither of my sons spoke in sentences.

I began investigating different therapies for my boys, feeling self-imposed pressure to choose just the perfect mix of them. After all, suppose I chose therapies A and B, but the best choice was actually therapy C? Or what if therapies A, C, and D were truly the best choice? Or... what if therapies E and F were the best choices, but only if they were done after therapy A and before therapy C? The possibilities for screwing up were endless, and I became increasingly afraid that if I messed up this decision, my kids would be permanently damaged beyond all repair. They would fall even further behind their peers in development, which would doom them to miserable, unfulfilled adult lives. And it would be all my fault!

My train of thoughts continued hurtling down this track until the day a healthcare professional examined one of my sons and exclaimed, "He's just not normal! Don't you want a normal child? Because I can fix him for you, if you'll let me. I can make him normal!" These comments were extremely disturbing and really got me thinking. 

Did my children really need fixing, in order to be considered normal? And if they needed to be fixed, did this mean that they were fundamentally flawed, or even broken? Was this the message I wanted to give my kids?

Around this time, I received a phone call from a friend whose son had developed a new habit. Apparently, he thrust his bottom lip forward whenever he felt nervous, and this made his jaw jut out. A school speech therapist felt this just wasn't normal, so she suggested that my friend take her son to a surgeon, who would break and reset her son's jawbone. That way, he would be physically unable to thrust his bottom lip forward, and voila! A normal child. 

My friend and her husband were horrified by this advice, and they wisely refused it. However, the fact that such a drastic solution would even be suggested helped me realize that we parents of developmentally delayed kids aren't the only ones being pressured to fix our children in the name of normal. In fact, based on conversations with many parent friends over the years, I now believe that parents in general are feeling increasingly pressured to build/engineer normal, perfect children. 

An example of this occurred during my youngest daughter's nine month checkup. That day, we were assigned to see a new pediatrician in the practice. After she measured and weighed my baby, we had the following conversation:

Doctor: Your baby is only 30th percentile weight. This isn't normal. Are you worried?
 Me: Nope. All of her siblings were about the same size at this age, and they didn't pack on weight until after they were a year old. Plus she's 90th percentile height.
 Doctor: Well, I'm worried. It isn't normal. I think she's not getting enough to eat.
Me: Trust me, this child eats like a horse. She's getting plenty to eat.
Doctor: You said you're nursing her. Do you nurse her at night?
Me: Heck no! She sleeps through the night, and that's the way we like it!
Doctor: Well, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, if you're nursing her, then you need to nurse her around the clock. That means during the night.
Me: Sorry, but I'm not doing it.
Doctor: But you are NOT following the guidelines advocated by the American Academy of Pediatrics! You MUST give your baby nighttime feedings, and if you don't agree to do this, then I'll be forced to write this down in your baby's medical records!
Me: Look, if the American Academy of Pediatrics wants to send a doctor to my house every night at 2am to get my daughter up and feed her, they're more than welcome to do this. Otherwise, she's sleeping through the night.
Doctor (snootily): I'm making a note of this in your baby's file.
Me (snarkily): Go right ahead. I'm making a note to find another pediatrician.

My youngest daughter at left, a few months ago. 
She is now taller and heavier than her older sister at right.

Had I been a new, inexperienced mother, the aforementioned conversation would have ended far differently. I would have left that office bawling my eyes out, berating myself for raising an abnormally underweight child, and believing I was a bad mother who had permanently stunted my poor child's growth. I also would have set my alarm clock for 2am from that night forward. But thankfully, I was a seasoned mother, and here's what I realized as I stomped out of the doctor's office: even though my baby's weight was abnormally low in the pediatrician's eyes, her weight was completely normal within the context of my family. This raises a very important point: 

Normal is a relative concept!

Normal actually means average, and average is defined as what most people around you are doing. So the definition of normal for any society is what most people in that society are doing. And normal is therefore subject to peer pressure, as well as changes in societal attitudes. 

For example, in today's society it's considered normal when a woman wants to be thin (usually—this excludes eating disorders.) That's because our society is health conscious and the mass media portrays thin, fit women as attractive and desirable. However, back in colonial times, a woman who wanted to be thin was considered abnormal, and here's why:

"Between 1400 and 1700, a fat body shape was considered sexually appealing and fashionable... this standard of feminine aesthetics was associated with the socio-economic conditions. 'In economies oriented to subsistence rather than abundance, a plump figure was a sign of wealth, health, and youth.'" (From The Media and Body Image, by Maggie Wykes and Barrie Gunter, p.36)

So, if our concept of normal is based upon our environment, this leads to two very important questions: 

What kind of a child is considered normal within our society? And are these the children we parents should be striving to raise? 

In my experience, our society's definition of a normal child is a kid who meets, or preferably exceeds, every item on the developmental and educational checklists for his/her age. At first glance, this seems completely reasonable.  

But if you really think about it, this standardized checklist approach treats our children as if they're robots on an assembly line—identical robot children whose physical, intellectual, and emotional development must stay in lockstep with the checklists, in order for our children to be deemed acceptably normal.  

And woe to the children (and their parents) who fall behind in any way—through special needs, physical clumsiness, slower academic skills, jaws that stick out when they're nervous, or 30th percentile weight at nine months!

Photo used with permission from J.L. Watkins

But when I look at the world around me—the world created by God—I've realized that God's normal is uniqueness! Just take a look at the wide array of skin colors, hair colors, body types, and personality traits that define us as individuals. God didn't have to create us this way. He could have created a world full of robot clones who look, talk, and act alike, but he didn't. And here's why: 

We weren't created to be robots, and we weren't created to raise robots! 

Instead, I believe God created each of us to be unique individuals, with unique giftings that point toward the specific callings he has placed upon each of our lives. This means that our children, by virtue of their individuality and natural giftings, will tend to develop more quickly in certain areas, and less quickly in others. Relatively few of them will hit every single one of those checklist points at the specified time, and this doesn't necessarily make us bad parents. Nor does it doom our children to failure as adults! 

In fact, many of the movers and shakers in society—the people who have shaped this country and this world—were considered abnormal (sometimes hopelessly so) when they were growing up. Following are three interesting examples that illustrate this point. See if you can guess who they are:

Abnormal Person #1:
When this person was a baby, his parents were very worried because they thought he was abnormally fat and had an abnormally large head. This person was unable to talk fluently in sentences until age nine, and his elementary school teachers told his parents that he was probably mentally retarded. His father asked the school headmaster what kind of job he should prepare his son for, and the headmaster replied, "It doesn't matter. He'll never make a success of anything." Who is this person? Answer: Albert Einstein.

Abnormal Person #2:
When this person was a young boy, his teacher described him as inattentive, dreamy, and distracted. This person recalled, "One day I heard the teacher tell the visiting school inspector that I was addled [confused] and it would not be worthwhile keeping me in school any longer." When his mother heard about this comment, she angrily told the teacher her son had more brains than he did, and she announced that she would teach her son at home. Who is this person? Answer: Thomas Edison.

Abnormal Person #3:
As a child, this person was considered weird by his classmates, who nicknamed him "the retard". When his father brought home a Lionel train set, it was noted that he did not play with it in the "normal" way. Instead, he crashed the trains for fun and filmed the wrecks with an 8mm camera. Who is this person? Answer: Steven Spielberg.

In addition to the people above, there's also the more down-to-earth example of my father, who came to this country with nothing but a trunk of clothing and a college scholarship. He was already in his early twenties when he entered college, which meant he was several years behind his fellow students. After two years, he dropped out, because he had such a tough time taking classes in a second language. He eventually found a job as a warehouse painter, and he spent several years working his way up the ladder to an engineering position at the same company. He later returned to college, taking night classes for several years until he finally earned his undergraduate degree at age 29. 

This is not the normal college prep and career path that high school students are warned they must follow, in order to lead a normal, successful life! And yet, my dad did quite well for himself. He had a long and successful engineering career, earned a masters degree, and raised five kids who all graduated from college. He and my mom also retired very comfortably.

My dad and the others I mentioned are all proof that people who fall behind norms for their age can catch up with their peers, and often surpass them during adulthood. They've also convinced me that hard work, a good attitude, and the willingness to make the most of opportunities can trump supposedly abnormal development during childhood.

This has profoundly affected my parenting style. Rather than worrying so much about all of the short-term goals on developmental checklists, my husband and I now take a long term, individualistic approach to childrearing. Over the long run, we have the same expectations for all of our children.

However, our short-term expectations are tempered by an understanding that children learn more quickly when they're developmentally ready for something, rather than when some timetable developed in a vacuum says they must be ready.

Given this mindset, we chose to homeschool our sons (and eventually all of our children). We felt this would give them extra time and space to develop, without subjecting them to the "fixing" mentality I mentioned earlier.  

As part of their schooling experience, we got both of our sons involved in music at an abnormally young age (five), figuring it would increase/stimulate the functioning of their right brain. Interestingly, our oldest son suddenly began speaking in sentences about three weeks after he began playing the piano with two hands. The same thing happened with our second son, who plays classical guitar. And today, both are functioning fairly "normally", despite being way behind on the development curve when they were younger.

Our oldest son on the floor of the Illinois House of Representatives, 
serving as an honorary page for our state representative, Sandy Cole. 

 Our second son giving a speech in Gavel Club (Toastmasters for teens). 
After a year of Gavel Club, he has started to enjoy public speaking and recently asked how many speeches he gets to do, going forward. This is not how "normal" teenagers are expected to behave!

Looking back on the past sixteen years of parenting, I can see that my sons' language and physical development delays profoundly impacted me in ways I never expected. Initially, I felt very overwhelmed. I also felt angry at God for making parenthood so difficult, and I felt bitterly envious of other parents who didn't have to deal with the fears, frustrations, and rude comments that came my way. And yet, all of this ultimately became a blessing, because it forced me to rethink the entire concept of normal on a far deeper level than I probably would have otherwise. 

Normal is no longer a goal I care to pursue, for either myself or any of my children. 

Instead, my husband and I are raising our kids to know and be the unique individuals that God created them to be, regardless of what the checklists say! This has made parenting far more enjoyable for us and for our children, who are getting better, less neurotic parents as a result. As usual, God knew what he was doing—even when I thought otherwise! 

Final note: everybody tells me that a "normal" blog post should be about eight hundred words. In the spirit of throwing normal out the window, I have far exceeded eight hundred words, and I hope you have enjoyed reading every one of them!