What do you think about adopting out of birth order? What about virtual twinning?

For those of you not part of the adoption community, these may seem like strange questions. But as someone who has been a part of the adoption community for 6+ years, of which about 4.5 have been as an adoptive parent, I have heard these questions asked, in one form or another, multiple times a week for years. And as an adoptive parent who has both adopted out of birth order and virtually twinned children, I feel qualified to be a voice speaking to both questions. Obviously specific counsel varies depending on individual situations, but this post should be taken as a collection of general guidelines.

First, some definitions. Adopting out of birth order is adding a child to your family who will not enter your family as the youngest. Displacing your oldest child is a particular form of adopting out of birth order in which the child who is joining your family will enter as the oldest child. Virtual twinning (also called artificial twinning) is adopting a child where there will be an age difference of less than 9 months between that child and another child in your family.

(from left to right, Atticus (whose birth order we disrupted by bringing home a sister older than he was); FangFang (the sister who is older than he is but joined our family after he did); Madeleine CaiQun (who is only about 4 months younger than our oldest and is thus her virtual twin); and Miranda (our oldest))

Second, I’d make this recommendation to all adopting families, but, in particular, if you are considering adopting out of birth order or virtual twinning, I think this counsel is important – please look for a well-recommended, experienced, wise social worker. A good social worker is worth more than their weight in gold. They’ve seen many, many adoptions. They have a lot of experience from which to draw and a lot of wisdom to offer. They are also, yes, tasked with evaluating whether a family meets the qualifications required to adopt from a certain program and what age(s) and gender(s) of child would be wise for that family to adopt, as well as what special needs that family is prepared to handle. Both when we virtual twinned and when we adopted out of birth order, our social worker was on board with us doing so. She has years of experience working with adoptive families, she’s seen a lot, and she knows our family well. We know she is there to support our family and to help everyone thrive, and we very much value her opinion. If she had not thought it was wise for us to pursue either situation, we would not have pushed her to approve us to do so. She has never thought it would be wise for us to adopt a child older than our oldest and has never approved us to do so – and we agree that to do so would be extremely unwise for us!

Conventional wisdom from social workers and experienced adoptive families has generally been that out of birth order adoptions should be undertaken rarely and with great thoughtfulness, particularly if a family is displacing their oldest child (which is very, very rarely recommended). The same goes for virtual twinning. Adoption is hard. Children who are being adopted have, without exception, experienced trauma, and that trauma is going to manifest itself somehow, and adoptive parents need to be prepared and parent well, often using a more limited range of strategies than those generally considered to be acceptable for parents in our society. Adopting out of birth order or virtual twinning adds additional variables and challenges to an already challenging situation. The immediate challenges may be any or all of the following, plus more:

  • Abuse (physical, sexual, verbal, etc) from a new child, who may have been exposed to absolutely anything in their former environment and now enters a family as not the smallest, weakest person.
  • Attachment difficulties, stemming in particular from 2 major concerns:
    • If there is abuse, it is hard for everyone to bond – the younger child being abused, the parents witnessing their baby being abused, and the new child, who is constantly tempted to lash out at their smaller (or same size) siblings.
    • If you bring in a new child as your youngest child, everyone understands that that child needs to be the “baby” of the family and should be treated as such. Bringing in a child who is not the youngest creates behavioral expectations for that child, that they be as mature as other children in your family and that they make room for babying a (likely regressing, due to the major change and potentially their own lack of understanding) younger child, as well.
  • Complex emotions on the part of children who may feel replaced by an older or similar-age child, moreso than they would by a baby.
  • Competition between similar age and/or similar developmental stage children.

Additionally, displacing an oldest child would set up difficulties in which the former oldest child (likely a child who, based on studies of birth order, likes to be a leader, likes to know what to expect, likes to be in control) is no longer the oldest child, and yet, they may remain the most mature child. The new child may refuse to follow the “lead” of the younger child in learning appropriate family behavior and instead may try to take the lead in promoting unsafe or inappropriate behaviors among all the children in the home. The now younger child may not appreciate having an older sibling who is less mature than they are. This can create tremendous tension. As an added concern, displacing an oldest child means that parents are now parenting a child who is at an age at which they have never parented a child before. It’s hard enough to figure out parenting, let alone adoption parenting, not to mention adoption parenting of a child who is years beyond any other child you have parented before.

As I said, despite all of these additional challenges, we’ve chosen both to virtual twin and to adopt out of birth order. So why did we do it?

With our first adoption, our daughter Miranda was almost 3, and we brought home a 2.5-year-old daughter, Madeleine CaiQun. Although only about 4 months apart in age, the two would be on either side of our school district’s age cut-off date for entering kindergarten, meaning that if we did choose to enroll them in public school, they’d be in different grades, and for social activities based on children’s grades, they’d be in different groups. We felt that would cut down on competition. We also knew that Madeleine CaiQun was significantly behind developmentally, so we figured that the girls wouldn’t really be competing with each other. We’d view Miranda as the older child and Madeleine CaiQun as the younger, and even though their technical birthdays were close together, we’d still create a pretty firm birth order.

(me with my virtual twins, together in China, 2013)

For the most part, that has played out well for us, and I really don’t think we hit most of those initial challenges I mentioned above. However, what I think we under-prepared for were the challenges we are facing now, 4.5 years later, as the girls are preparing to start 1st and 2nd grades, and there are many ways in which there is not such a firm-seeming “birth order.” Based on our experience (and those experiences of other families we know who are a similar length of time into the process), I’d encourage families to consider the following:

  • How will you handle it if your child at home is more advanced than your new child across the board?
  • What happens if the “younger” child or child who joined the family later, actually is better than the “older” child in certain areas? How will the older child feel about having a younger sibling who is more advanced than they are?
  • How will you avoid constant comparison of your children? How will you interact with other adults in your children’s lives, who may have a tendency to compare them? What about other children making comparisons?
  • How will you navigate social situations? What if one child is more social than the other? What if the two enjoy being together but invitations are not always issued to both children? What if the two don’t enjoy being together?
  • How will you navigate extra-curricular activities? The kids do the same activities (convenient, but it’s a lot of time together and can lead to competition)? Different activities (gives kids some space but is a lot less convenient)? What about the social implications of whatever choice you make with regards to those extra-curricular activities?

(my virtual twins together, 2016)

In terms of adopting out of birth order, we avoided some of the challenges by virtue of who our children are. We knew that FangFang, though 14 months older than Atticus, would be significantly smaller than he would be and definitely behind him in terms of gross motor skill development – she wasn’t going to be bullying him. Additionally, because of her needs, we’d have to “baby” her in a lot of ways, often carrying her and assisting her in other ways. Also, Atticus, as a third child, was quite used to the reality that the world did not revolve around him, and because we also had other families and kids in and out of our house frequently (even caring part-time for a friend’s little boy close in age to Atticus), he was used to sharing us with other kids. We also knew that Matt’s flexible schedule would allow him to be helpful with any challenges that did arise once FangFang came home.

Even so, it was a difficult transition for him. I’m not sure it would have been significantly less difficult had we brought home a younger toddler, but the reality is that it was hard on him. There were many instances those first weeks after I arrived home in which either Matt or I had to be fully engaged with Atticus for a period of time while the other cared for the other three kids.

(my two littles with me, soon after I returned home from China with FangFang – if one was sitting with me, the other also had to be there, December 2016)

Again, based on our experience, but also the experiences of others whom we know who have adopted out of birth order, I’d encourage families considering adopting out of birth order to consider these questions:

  • What will you do if your new child attempts to bully your younger child? How will you keep your younger child safe? Are you willing and able to keep your new child with you – as in, within your line of sight – at absolutely all times?
  • How will you facilitate bonding between a new child and the younger child they are bullying, between the new child and any older siblings who don’t appreciate seeing their youngest sibling be a target for this new child, and between you as parents and this new child?
  • How will you give your new child the babying they need to attach to you as parents, while also caring for your other, particularly younger, child(ren)?
  • How will you care for your younger child(ren), who will probably be stressed out by the addition of this newest child, and so will probably be regressing? Can you baby both your new child and your younger child(ren), all at the same time? What resources do you have to do so?
  • If your children are not bonding well and require constant supervision, do you have other people in your life who can provide the intense care that they need? If not, how will your marriage handle not being able to get away for time without kids?
  • Assuming your new child comes home with some special needs, you will likely now need to spend significant time at doctor appointments, in the hospital, at therapy appointments, and/or on the phone coordinating all of these needs, etc.; how will your other children, particularly any younger children, who are less able to understand the reason for all of this time away, handle this? How will you equip them to handle it well?

(the littles playing on “boats” together, July 2017)

Additionally, for anyone considering pursuing an out-of-birth order or virtual twinning adoption, I’d encourage you to be honest as you consider, are you pursuing this child because you truly believe that is what’s best for this child and for your existing family, OR are you pursuing adopting this older, harder-to-place child because then you don’t have to wait as long for a match?

In general, I think it’s good for families to be aware of guidelines that adoption professionals use as “best practices” and that experienced families consider to be wise. As many of us BTDT parents say over and over again in discussions within the adoption community, if you are proceeding with adopting, there are many unknowns. Think about what the worst case scenario is. If you’re not prepared for that, don’t proceed. There are many success stories of families adopting out of birth order and virtual twinning – and, honestly, the people with those stories are more likely to stick around as part of the Facebook groups and the resource lists for people preparing to adopt. But just because someone else’s experience went well does not mean that yours will, and if you can’t handle a harder version of what your potential future reality could be, it would be wise not to proceed.

I’d also recommend checking out this blog post, written by another adoptive mom who has been around for a while, in which she shares some wisdom and links to many other resources for people to read and think about as they consider proceeding with either of these scenarios.

And if you have any questions or want to talk more, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me. You’ll notice that I shared very few details about our specific challenges and adjustments, which is purposeful on my part – I don’t think my children’s challenges should be google-able – but I’m happy to talk with you about your specific situation and offer more info that might be helpful about challenges we’ve faced (or have seen play out for others) in private interactions 🙂

pressing on through weariness

“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:9-10). 

These past couple weeks have been wearying. There are the early mornings, the doctor appointments (and PT appointments and dentist appointments and on and on), and other physical demands of caring for 4 small children – and on top of that, seasonal allergies have arrived here in mid-Missouri. Beyond that, there is the emotional and spiritual exhaustion of parenting. I so often feel so inadequate to be the mother my children need.

And yet…I am the mother God has given them, and they are the children with which He has blessed me. I have no doubt that He is growing each of us through our interactions with each other.

A couple weeks ago, we watched the movie Inside Out again, and we’ve since had some good conversations about when Riley made the best choices, whether it was when anger was in control, or when she was feeling her other emotions, too. Most of the conversations have involved my teaching my kiddos, but one day, Miranda said to me, “Mom, you are letting anger control your choices right now.” And I was. And the intensity of my emotions dissipated immediately, and I apologized, and we moved on.

That’s a lot of what we do these days – moving on, putting one foot in front of the other, and pressing on. It’s all we can do really. In the harder moments, I’ve been thinking about the Bible verses, “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5). So much of parenting is true joy, but there is also the pain of seeing your children make bad choices, of leading them toward righteousness and seeing them turn away. Some days, I just feel done by 2:00. But done or not, we’ve got hours left before Matt arrives home, and I need to press on, and I hope that I am growing in my ability to endure well and growing in character. I hope that my children are, too, though it’s sometimes hard to see that in the small, day-to-day interactions. Yesterday afternoon one of my precious children told me angrily that she didn’t see why she had to clear her plate from the table after lunch – it was a waste of her time, and she didn’t used to have to do it herself. We talked about growth and building character. I’m not sure she believes it to be worth it at this point, but we’ll keep calling her to that standard.

There are many days on which I feel like my level of spiritual endurance is approximately equivalent to that of a six-year-old who resists at every turn the policy that she clear her things from the table after a meal. I want to grow, though. I want to have endurance, character, and hope. I want not to grow weary of doing good. I want to have hope that my children will grow to be kind, loving, and thoughtful human beings who follow the Lord. I want to trust that He is working in both them and me for good through these hard parenting times, and I want to do what He’s calling me to do as their mom.

And as God brings us to your mind in the coming days and weeks, please pray for us to that end.

Hard Work and Much Progress

Since FangFang arrived home, we’ve been working hard to get her in to see all of the doctors and specialists she needs to see, run all the tests we’ve needed to run, and connect her with all the services for which she qualifies. Make no mistake about it – this has been work. She’s been home just over 2 months, and so far we’ve tackled 3 assessments, seen 4 doctors who are going to be integral to her care, done our first adoption post-placement visit, started weekly physical therapy, and started the process to obtain a wheelchair. I’ve also had approximately 587 phone calls and occasionally some e-mails with various nurses, schedulers, and insurance company representatives. In the next couple weeks, we also have appointments with another 3 doctors and a dentist, plus an IEP meeting, and we’ll start physical therapy through the school system. Every once in a while we have a week with only one meeting or appointment (our regular physical therapy), and that feels so amazing and free, because most weeks register at least two appointments, sometimes more – this week has five. And it’s real work, coordinating all of those. There are a lot of balls to juggle in being a mama to a kiddo with special needs. Add to that the fact that it has been about 2 weeks since I’ve gotten both littles to nap at the same time on the same afternoon, and this mama is spending quite a bit of time emotionally and physically exhausted.

But you know who is working harder than I am? This girl.

For all of the time we’ve known her, she’s been quite adept at scooting herself around on her bottom, but she’d never independently shown us any ability to crawl. In fact, she acted like she’d never done any sort of “tummy time” before, but even so, it took her exactly one week of physical therapy and working on skills at home to start army crawling. The next week she was rolling over multiple times in a row and also pushing her stomach up off the floor to get into a crawling position. She’s also been telling me, “Stand up!” She loves being held in a vertical position, though I’m careful not to place any real weight on her legs.

Seeing her hit these milestones is amazing. She’s my fourth kiddo, and I’ve never celebrated a first army crawl with this level of excitement. She is clearly pushing herself – in fact, she’ll regularly look at our physical therapist or at me and say, “so hard, so hard.” But she’s also so excited to be able to master these skills that she sees others using. The joy on her face as she experiences the fruit of her labors is beautiful.

And now? FangFang is trying to pull to a stand. This is actually a rather dangerous situation, so we’ve strongly discouraged it for now. With her current bone density and the degree of bowing her right femur is showing, attempts to support her weight on her legs are highly likely to result in the snapping of that femur – an experience we’d all like to avoid. We’ve scheduled bilateral femur rodding surgery for the end of this month, and we’re hoping we can make it to that date without any issues. I cannot wait to see her progress after that surgery! I imagine it’s going to blow us away. Whether she walks or not is not important to us, per se – we love her because she’s our daughter, not because of her capabilities – but we want to facilitate her growth to whatever her full potential is in every area of her life, and it’s exciting to see her moving forward day after day. She’s an amazing kiddo with a huge sense of determination, and we’re fortunate to be traveling together with her on this adventure of life.

Citizens

This week we received FangFang’s Certificate of Citizenship, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

I’m both thankful that we have it and saddened that, this time around, I have felt much more of a sense of urgency as we waited for its arrival. The current political and cultural climate surrounding immigration is frightening to me. Today we have reports of customs agents checking the identification of every passenger disembarking from a domestic flight. When Miranda was a baby, I flew with her with no thought to any need that might arise for me to prove her citizenship. That will never be the case with my other daughters. Earlier this week there were cautions that those who look like immigrants should make sure not to leave home without their passports. You can argue that these measures are aimed at illegal immigrants.

But it’s not too much of a stretch to think that those currently in power in our country – President Trump, his advisers, and the Republican-controlled Congress – might go a step beyond that. Trump advisers have cited the internment of Japanese Americans – citizens of our country – during World War II as a legal precedent for actions they might consider.

My daughters have some access to my own white privilege at this time – but the fact remains that they are immigrants. Legal immigrants, yes, citizens even, but immigrants nonetheless. I have, twice now, entered a US Consulate in another country, in order to complete the formal application for an immigrant visa for a child whose adoption I had recently finalized.

We now have the document that is the gold standard in proving citizenship for both of our foreign-born children. We’ll be applying for FangFang’s passport soon, so that all 6 of us have passports, should a situation arise in which we’d feel a need to travel abroad quickly. I hope that the coming months and years prove that to be an unwarranted fear – and I think it likely is – but I’m not willing to say that I’m 100% certain of that, so we’re going to take what we believe to be the necessary precautions.

And I would ask that, in the coming months and years, when you hear discussions of policy proposals and recommendations surrounding immigration policy, you remember my children, two of whom are immigrants. Immigration policy is, of course, about politics, but for our family, it is also deeply personal. When you make blanket statements about immigrants and their place in our country, please remember my children. They are immigrants, and they – as well as all other immigrants here in our country – deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

a week of anniversaries

In a way that I’d never have predicted, the middle week of February has become one of great significance in our family’s story.

This Tuesday was the one-year anniversary of the shocking death of Matt’s older sister, Denya. Her daughters, in a gesture of which she would have been proud, chose to celebrate her life this week by asking Facebook friends to share their happy memories of her. It was fun to read of her love and laughter as experienced by other friends and family, too, but we definitely miss her. I miss her always encouraging Facebook and blog comments, her support for every new venture we pursued, her wise parenting advise, and, of course, the times spent hanging out together in her kitchen, enjoying and chatting about life together.

Yesterday was actually the one-year anniversary of our receiving pre-approval (PA) to adopt FangFang. We didn’t post about it far and wide on Facebook or anywhere else at that time – largely because we were en route to New York for Denya’s funeral, and we hadn’t yet told all of our close friends and family about our pursuit of adopting her. But still, as we drove on, snow-covered roads bringing us ever closer to the reality of the loss of our sister and friend, we celebrated the news that a new life would be joining our family, a precious girl we knew primarily through these pictures.

Our next milestone is today – the one year anniversary of Matt’s heart attack. One year ago today, after attending the calling hours for Denya, we were all resting in our hotel room when Matt suffered a sudden cardiac arrest. With our children looking on, I called 9-1-1, and our reality quickly transitioned from this

to this.

Matt’s heart attack has been a defining moment in our lives, one that, like having our first child, divides all of time into “before” and “after.”

Post heart-attack life is different than pre-heart-attack life. We have a radically different diet, eating almost exclusively low-sodium, plant-centered, pescetarian foods. Exercise is no longer viewed as a luxury to be pursued “once things settle down” but as a necessity, essential to sustaining life. We’ve become convinced that we cannot allow others’ desires to govern our lives – saying “no” has life-giving power. And beyond the practical changes we have made, we see life differently. Our default assumption is no longer that we are virtually guaranteed to have long, healthy lives together. The statistics for survival after cardiac arrest are sobering. My hope and prayer is that Matt and I will have many more years together – and I dream of what our future may look like – but we can no longer pretend that death is a far away specter of which we need only think once we are retired empty-nesters. Matt shared some of his thoughts on this day and that reality here. And the truth is that it is a source of some anxiety for me. We’re doing all we can to live healthily, though – and that’s all we can do. Beyond that, the calls for us are the same as those for anyone else – we seek to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. We fumble toward one another, seeking to love and care for each other well, to honor our marriage vows. We pursue growth as parents and do what we can to encourage and pray for our kiddos to grow into thoughtful adults who will pursue God, be thoughtful and understanding, and fight for what’s right in the world around them. We look for ways to engage with the community and the world around us.

Life this week, while in many ways haunted by these anniversaries, has, for the most part, been simply normal. We’ve read books, learned about math, coached kids through resolvoing squabbles, played outside, eaten meals, done laundry and dishes, and relaxed with an episode of the West Wing or a game of Yahtzee after the kids have gone to bed.

And we look forward to the last of this week’s anniversaries. Tomorrow 4 years will have passed since the day Madeleine CaiQun joined our family.

This sweet girl has brought so much joy to our family – so many snuggles, so many good conversations, so much laughter. And so tomorrow we will eat Chinese food – noodles and dumplings, in honor of her province and the foods she loves so much – and celebrate.

This week is such a strange mix of reminders of life and death, of mourning and celebrations. We press on and pray that we can act honorably in the midst of it all.