Summer Reading

One of the greatest challenges for me, during this stage of life in which I have a good number of fairly small children, is in balancing all of my primary roles and responsibilities. Being a wife and a mom can, even on a good day, threaten to overwhelm all else. Yet I know that it is crucial for me to have time to think, to pray, to reflect, and to be a person in my own right.

Something I’ve always enjoyed is reading books. I love both non-fiction and fiction, the former offering countless opportunities for learning and the latter providing a glimpse into the minds and hearts of other people and thereby helping to expand my own. And while I’ve never entirely stopped reading, it’s been something that has ebbed and flowed, generally in inverse proportion to the demands of my children.

I really started making reading a priority again this past spring. Before we went to Omaha for FangFang’s surgery, I’d solicited book recommendations from friends on Facebook and received quite a few and downloaded several into my Kindle app. That was fortunate, since she spent much of her time in the hospital sitting on my lap, often sleeping, and I could do little besides read.

I’ve discovered in the last few months that I really do retain non-fiction better if I read it in actual book form, so I’ve been sticking to that, but I’ve been borrowing fiction books from the library through Overdrive to read on my Kindle app (and occasionally purchasing books from Amazon, as well). I’ve actually put the Kindle app on my phone, and I’ve read so many books that way over the last couple months. It’s not really my preference, but I always have my phone with me, so I’m able to pull it out and read for a few minutes while waiting for water to boil when I’m cooking or sit and read while waiting in the bathroom with a potty-training toddler. And a side benefit is that I’m less tempted to look at Facebook 50 times a day when I have something else interesting I can pull up on my phone instead!

As far as serious non-fiction, I greatly enjoyed reading Hannah Anderson’s Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul, and I even got to go to a book discussion evening with some other ladies to talk about it. I’ve been wanting to grow in humility, and this book was a great encouragement to me. I’ve also been reading Raising a Sensory Smart Child, by Lindsey Biel and Nancy Peske. It has given me some good information as I’ve been learning more about sensory processing and about ways in which our body’s sensory-seeking or sensory-avoiding tendencies can affect our lives and how we can use that information to make good choices for ourselves and our children. After finishing Humble Roots, I started reading Mike Wilkerson’s Redemption: Freed by Jesus from the Idols We Worship and the Wounds We Carry and am looking forward to digging into it more as I prepare for some upcoming ministry opportunities with our church. Next up after that is going to be David Powlison’s new book, How Does Sanctification Work?. David Powlison is my favorite Christian writer and speaker, and I’m really looking forward to reading what he has written. I’m hoping also to get into Praying Together, by Megan Hill, which a lot of the people from our church are reading this summer.

Matt and I have been consistent in our reading together – since our dating days, we’ve always read books together, sometimes both of us reading the same book separately and then discussing it, more often reading out loud to each other. In recent years we’ve been going through sagas – we read almost all of Madeleine L’Engle’s fiction, then read through Harry Potter, and we just finished The Lord of the Rings. The other day we started Dirk Gentley’s Holistic Detective Agency, my first Douglas Adams book, which, so far, is odd – I’m looking forward to seeing what I think of it after we get into it a bit more, since so many good friends have such a love for Douglas Adams!

I’ve really enjoyed being able to venture beyond our reading together into copious amounts of fiction reading on my own, though, sprinkling in some heavier reads among a lot of lighter, happier books. I read two excellent World War II era books: The Nightingale, which crushed me; and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, which at first I thought I wouldn’t like, due to its form of story-telling via letters between various characters, but which I ended up loving. I also loved Wonder, an adolescent fiction novel, which is beautiful and definitely a tear-jerker. My children will be reading all of those books as they reach ages at which they’d be appropriate!

I read some Nelson DeMille books, which were generally good stories, but most of his main characters just annoyed me, so I couldn’t truly enjoy immersing myself in them. But the only book I actually stopped reading before I finished was The Handmaid’s Tale. I may come back to it someday, but I found myself far too creeped out by its dystopian world. I was having weird dreams about it at night and having a hard time jumping back and forth between its world (while I cooked dinner) and my own (as children invariably came into the kitchen to make one request or another). While they’re lighter and probably less respectable as literature, I’ve enjoyed much more the thoughtful, engaging novels of Sara Donati and Christa Parrish. At another time, I might have pushed through the Handmaid’s Tale, because I feel like it’s a book I should be able to say I’ve read, but I’m learning that, just as I parent each child according to what they need at any particular moment, it’s a good idea to pay attention to what I need and want at various times. Right now I don’t need the harsh creepiness but am very encouraged by good, thoughtful stories, and I’m okay with that!

I’m so thankful to be able to grab even a few minutes here and there to do some more reading these days. I’d love any book recommendations you readers may have, as I’m always looking for more good books to read!

An Encouraging Book: Different by Sally and Nathan Clarkson

A while ago, my best friend from college recommended Sally Clarkson‘s podcast to me, and it’s now one of only two podcasts to which I make time to listen regularly. I’ve found it to be such an encouragement to me in my mothering. When Sally started talking about the new books she had coming out, and I read her guest post on Ann Voskamp’s blog, I knew I had to read this book. It’s called Different: The Story of an Outside-the-Box Kid and the Mom Who Loved Him.

You see, I have at least one child who is an outside-the-box kid. I actually suspect all four of my children may be, each in their own way, likely manifesting it in different ways and at different times. However, there is one child in particular of whom I am thinking right now. Matt and I have had innumerable conversations about what we believe is going on with this child, and we’ve prayed and sought advice from several people whom we trust. We’ve just recently begun the process of exploring whether it might be good to have some more formal professional evaluations done.

In the midst of all that, there is so much doubt and second-guessing. Is my child struggling in this area because I have failed them in some way? Has my discipline been too harsh? Too permissive? Have we made poor choices, and is what we’re seeing now just the result of that? How are the things we’re seeing affecting our other children? Am I a horrible mother? 

And into those fears and questions stepped Sally and Nathan Clarkson with this book, and it was such an encouragement to my soul. Frustrated by the frequent unexpected delays to my agenda that this child’s behavior can cause, I read Sally’s words, “And I began to deeply perceive that people made in God’s image, no matter how challenging, are of more importance to Him than efficiency, control, or order” (page 27). To my fear that my parenting is ineffective and that everyone does or will view me as a bad mom, she speaks, “So instead of worrying about what others thought or about what I thought children should be like, I tried my best to focus on Nathan’s true needs, his actual capabilities, and what he needed most to learn. I aimed at reaching his heart through consistent instruction, encouragement, accountability, and training, moving him little by little toward self-control and responsiveness to our family ways” (page 27).

I found reassurance that I wasn’t the only one to make a commitment to this as a parenting strategy: “So I learned to pick our battles carefully. I tried to focus on those things that mattered spiritually, not minor issues or man-made rules. I intentionally pressed in on issues that would affect relationships, character, and faith and tried to back off of other, less crucial issues” (page 41). That same strategy is the reason you’ll often see our big girls out and about with drawings on their faces these days. It is certainly not my preference – but we’ve got bigger battles to fight. I’ve told them that if they’re going to draw on themselves, it needs to be with washable markers, but beyond that, we allow it.

I read challenges to press on in pursuing and loving this child – “[God] does not require us to control our children or friends, much less ‘fix’ them. But he does call us to pay attention, to love others, to be the ones who reach out as consistently as possible…My most important ministry would unfold one obedient moment after another as I learned to love and understand and serve those who were closest to me. Nathan or one of my other family members would push my buttons. And I would have to overcome my feelings and practice giving patient answers, to give up my rights one more time…[W]alking in the power of the Holy Spirit often means choosing to be patient and loving when you feel like being impatient and angry. It is the practicing of growing in these areas that grows our spiritual muscle” (pages 136-137).

I found encouragement that persistent compassion and grace can reach hearts – “Knowing when to correct and train, when to overlook, and when to enjoy and praise is a constant balancing act for a parent, but I tried to err on the side of compassion and sympathy with Nathan. These seemed to be the tools that opened Nathan’s heart to correction. And these gifts could only be given through personal time invested over and over again” (page 145). And I saw reassurance that prioritizing my relationship with my children matters – “If we are gentle, loving, kind, forgiving, then our children will have a picture from us that God is also gracious, kind, loving, forgiving” (page 160).

Perhaps most encouraging of all, I read that I was not alone, that even Sally Clarkson, who speaks around the world, encouraging moms, had hard days in parenting, and yet she made it through them. She writes, “[M]any dark, challenging days filled my journey of motherhood. Yet my foundational faith told me every day that God was good and that He had given me this day to live out my faith in Him by doing my best to bring light, goodness, and kindness into the world. And so it was amidst my struggles and trials that I learned the secret of celebrating life as it had been given to me” (page 194). And she raised a son who, while outside-the-box, has learned to follow God in his own unique way. He himself says, “The truth is, we live in a deeply fractured world, and we don’t always have a choice about being broken. But we do have a choice about where we let our brokenness lead us. We can follow it into escape or addiction. But we can also follow it straight to God. To the One who knows us inside and out – with all our mistakes, broken parts, insecurities, and battles – and who still loves us” (page 186). And of the fruit of his experience with his difficult growing years, Sally writes, “I am convinced that the stories he is now telling could never have had such depth if his soul had not been shaped by the pain and tears of being different” (page 214).

Having an outside-the-box kid doesn’t mean I’ve done anything wrong as a mom. It doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with my child. It means that this is the path God has set out for us to walk, and we’re going to figure it out together, certainly making mistakes, but attempting to live honorably, challenging one another, and having our lives enriched along the way. I was so encouraged by this book, and if you are parenting an outside-the-box kid, I’d encourage you to pick up a copy and read it, too.

Reconnecting with my Kiddos

Parenting always has its ebbs and flows, but we’ve had a rough past couple weeks around here, with one of our children in particular. Some of that has been us, I’m sure – when Matt and I are stressed out or focused on other things, we don’t do as good of a job at parenting, and he’s in the middle of his semester, and I’m working hard on accomplishing everything on my pre-adoption to do list. But some of it was definitely her and for no reason we could discern – perhaps the upcoming changes in our family? Perhaps just a phase? Who knows. It’s been hard, though. I called our social worker and asked for her advice. I asked a few friends to pray for me.

And I’ve upped my connected parenting game. I’ve sought opportunities to say yes. I’ve gotten down on my kids’ level to talk with them. I’ve been willing to work with the girls on compromises that help each of us work toward what’s important to us. I’ve proposed outings to the park just because they would be fun.

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I’ve been putting my phone down more. We’ve been role-playing tough situations. We’ve been having a lot of re-dos. I’ve been doing one-on-one dates with each of my girls.

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And the past week or so has been better, and I’ve been encouraged. It’s been hard work, but it’s worth it. I want to be able to help my kids work through conflict and handle their emotions well, and it’s worth the time it takes to help them learn those skills. And I want us to have good, healthy relationships, and it’s worth the time it takes to build those.

Even in the midst of that context, though, I was shocked by an experience we had this morning. A friend of mine, another adoption mama, is spending a week in Texas at a TBRI (trust-based relational intervention) Practitioner Training, and I’ve been following along with her blog and Facebook posts, hoping to glean any pearls of wisdom that might be helpful to me in parenting our kiddos. She posted yesterday about an example of an “I Love You Ritual.” Matt and I have the book but haven’t drawn on it as much as we probably should have. I pulled up the video to which she linked and watched as parents and children sang to each other, to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, about how precious they are:

Twinkle twinkle little star
What a wonderful child you are
With big, bright eyes and nice round cheeks
A talented person from head to feet
Twinkle twinkle little star
What a wonderful child you are

I watched it a couple times with my kids and then told them I wanted to sing it to each of them. I expected them to think it was corny and get bored and run away. Not so. I was blown away by their responses. Atticus is already picking up on the motions. Miranda stared into my eyes, beaming, soaking up the message. Madeleine CaiQun refused to make eye contact at all – it was too much for her. But immediately after I finished singing to her, she crawled into my lap, curled up, and opened up about some of her fears about our upcoming trip to China. This was a holy morning at our house, my friends.

Dr. Karyn Purvis, who truly helped to bring hope and healing to so many adoptive (and non-adoptive) families and who pioneered so much of the research upon which we draw in our parenting, has a quote that is often repeated in adoption circles – “All children need to know that they are precious, unique, and special, but a child who comes from a hard place needs to know it more desperately.”

I have been underestimating the degree to which my children need to hear that message. I do need to be spending time with them, reading to them, taking them out on dates…but I also need to make sure I’m speaking directly to their hearts with my words and telling them exactly how precious and wonderful they are to me. I have a feeling this song is going to get a lot of air time in our house in the coming days and weeks and months, and I’ll be seeking out other methods of reaching out to nurture their hearts, as well.

Homeschooling So Far This Year

My last few blog posts may have given the impression that my life these days consists entirely of adoption-related activities, but that’s actually not quite true! While my time and my heart are quite occupied with adoption, as the mama of three kiddos here at home, I have a lot of other things going on, too!

We are about mid-way through our 7th week of homeschooling, and when I shared about our curriculum for this year, I promised I’d write about how our school year was starting, so I want to do that now!

Honestly, I’m really happy with all the curriculum we’re using. The girls are plugging along with hand-writing, not really learning anything new per se, but continuing to hone their skills.

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Math is going well. Miranda regularly reports that math is her favorite subject, and she does well with it, though as she’s gotten older and the lessons are longer, she sometimes has a hard time staying on task and motivated for long enough to finish an entire assignment – but she understands the material and loves learning new concepts.

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I think I may have let Madeleine CaiQun speed through Kindergarten math a bit too fast last year, so this year we’ve taken some time to slow down and make sure she is really grasping the concepts being taught – I’ve had her use manipulatives when she isn’t coming up with the correct answers for addition and subtraction questions right away, and that helps her tremendously. Singapore Math seems to be very heavily a mental math curriculum, and while it’s awesome for Miranda, I’m not sure it will continue to work well for all of my kids all the time, but we’ll continue to re-evaluate that for each child as needed. One thing I love about homeschooling is that we have the freedom to do that 🙂

One area in which Madeleine CaiQun truly shines is reading. This girl loves to read and has grown in leaps and bounds in her reading ability in the last year and a half – I started her last year reading consonant-vowel-consonant words, and now she excels at the grade 2 readers I have her doing and could really probably be tackling more advanced books! She does enough of that on her own, though, that I think it’s good for her to hang in there with the grade 2 books for school, just getting some practice slowing down and enunciating as she reads out loud with these. Her consistency and desire to learn have really paid off in this area.

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It’s interesting to me that both girls recognize their own strengths and weaknesses and see where the other shines, as well, but neither appears to be jealous or angry about it.

We’re all enjoying the Bible and Language Arts curriculum we’re doing this year, and I see the girls learning in both arenas. We’re studying some characteristics of God this year, which has been cool. And in Language Arts, they’re beginning to learn about some simple grammar (i.e. nouns), memorize some poems, and acquire the basic building blocks for learning to spell. This Language Arts curriculum feels more focused and straightforward than what we were doing last year, so I feel good about making the choice to switch and try something new, and the girls like it better, too.

And, of course, we’re enjoying Sonlight’s read-alouds, the literature books I read out loud to the girls each day. We started off with Charlotte’s Web, and when we finished, we had a family movie night to enjoy the film!

I wasn’t sure what studying ancient history with 6-year-olds would really be like, but so far, it’s going well! We’ve learned about archaeological digs (and had a conference call with my brother, who spent a summer working on a dig in Italy!), and this week we’re reading about ancient Egypt, mummies, and King Tut.

In science, we’re learning about animals, and the girls are really enjoying that. The internet-linked capacity of our animal book is something they really love, getting to watch videos of many of the animals about which we read each day. We also took a day recently to drive to St. Louis with some friends and visit the zoo to see many of the animals firsthand (and, of course, to ride the train).

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I’d say the biggest struggle for me is fitting it all in each day – and the result is that we usually don’t fit it all in each day! I’m constantly going back and forth about whether that’s okay (they’re six! they learn through play! they don’t need to spend 5 hours a day doing school or hit every subject every day!) or whether I really need to get us on track now (we’re going to bring home another toddler soon, so we need to accomplish as much as possible before then! we should have a solid routine that allows us to accomplish everything each day! we should check things off our lists!). Being a checklist-oriented person, I still cringe inwardly every time I think of taking 8 days or so to do 5 days’ worth of scheduled work, but I also think it’s what’s working best for us now. We’ve had a number of doctor appointments recently, we’ve had adoption paperwork to do, we’ve taken advantage of some nice days to meet friends at the park, and I don’t want to sacrifice those things in order to guarantee that we hit every subject every day.

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The girls are learning and growing. We’re taking time to talk about character when needed – it may not be on any checklist, but I have to remind myself nearly every day that addressing character issues and teaching my kids about what it looks like to follow God is so much more important than getting through every subject on the list each day.

I do worry about how we’ll all adjust once we have two little mischief makers underfoot instead of just one, but I imagine we’ll figure it out 🙂

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And if it takes us more than a year to get through this year’s curriculum, but we do it well, so be it. They’re six, and it’ll be okay – or so I keep telling myself 🙂

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We’re spending time together as a family, learning about God and life, learning about the world, and (even if not as quickly as I’d like), checking off the boxes on our curriculum 🙂

Box Day and Homeschool Curriculum 2016-2017

As I shared recently, we finished our 2015-2016 school year the first week of August. Providentially, our box of books and curriculum for our 2016-2017 school year was scheduled to arrive the next day! In the Sonlight homeschooling community, that day is known as “box day,” and most – our family included – consider it to be worthy of celebration! The girls dug into the box with much excitement 🙂

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Its contents did not disappoint! They were both particularly excited to see this Magic School Bus book…

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…as well as this Bible, which they’d looked through at a friend’s house…

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…and they promptly sat down and spent the next couple hours looking at all the new books!

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We are continuing to use Sonlight for almost all of our curriculum. Based on their ages, this would be Miranda’s first grade year and Madeleine CaiQun’s kindergarten year, but I always have to stop and think about what grades they’re in when someone asks, because we just work with each girl at the appropriate level for each subject and don’t worry too much about what the label is.

For Bible, History/Geography, and Literature, we’re using Sonlight’s Core B, which is World History: Creation through the Fall of Rome. Both girls are using the Grade 2 readers, and they’ve really enjoyed digging into some of these books already! We’re also doing Sonlight’s Science B, which focuses on animals, astronomy, and physics. Given how much they loved the little bit of astronomy we did last year, I’m predicting that is going to be a favorite this year! We’re continuing with Singapore Math, using level 1 for Madeleine CaiQun and level 2 for Miranda. And for Language Arts, we’re pulling together materials from a few different sources, using First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind: Level 1, All About Spelling Level 1, and Handwriting Without Tears Level 1 for Madeleine CaiQun and Level 2 for Miranda.

Overall, I’m really excited about our curriculum choices for the year! I’m looking forward to diving into history with more depth with the girls, and science has been one of our favorite subjects in the past, so I think we’ll all continue to learn well together in that area. I think it’s going to be a good year 🙂

And the girls seem to agree! I had thought we’d take off at least a few days after finishing our last school year, but as they looked through all the books that arrived, both girls requested that we begin our school year the very next day! I spent some time that evening putting everything together, and we went ahead and did just that 🙂 I’ll have another post coming soon about our first few days of school for the year!