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 🙂

A New Activity – Horseback Riding!

Our two older girls began participating in gymnastics just over 3 years ago, but this summer, they’ve expressed interest in trying something new. That was initially somewhat bittersweet for me, as I’ve always loved the sport of gymnastics, but ultimately, we have definite priorities in what we want in our kids’ extra-curricular activities, and they don’t really have anything to do with participation in the sport I’ve enjoyed participating in and watching!

Madeleine CaiQun came to us one day and said that she really wanted to try horseback riding. We value making sure that our children know they have a voice, so I told her I’d look into it, and after soliciting recommendations for child-friendly horseback riding lessons, I made a phone call and got her set up with her very first lesson.

She was rather intimidated when she saw the size of Lulu, the pony she was to be riding, up close and personal, but she got up there!

She got to practice leading Lulu around…

…and, while she had both Courtney (her instructor) and me physically holding onto her for most of her lesson, she was okay with us letting go so that we could take a few photos of her on Lulu by herself.

She loved it and told me definitively that she wanted to come back and ride again.

Before her second lesson, though, Miranda had her turn. Miranda had not exactly been thrilled that, while she was the older sister, she did not get to be the first child in our family to enjoy this activity! We did get her set up for a lesson, though, and after hearing about Madeleine CaiQun’s lesson, she made sure to tell me on our drive out to the barn that I would not be holding onto her leg while she rode, and true to her word, she was an adventurous first-time rider, even trotting during her first lesson!

She learned about holding her reins…

…and two-point…

…and weaving.

And of course she posed for a photo with Delilah, the pony she was riding 🙂

One thing that stands out to me in our short tenure as parents with kids involved in activities is that having a good instructor is truly paramount, and we’ve been quite blessed in that regard. Our girls’ first gymnastics coach was superb – nurturing and fun while also teaching – exactly what they needed as young pre-schoolers starting out in their first activity not taught by me. And their horseback riding instructor, Courtney, is awesome. She’s able to switch gears on a moment’s notice, and she’s great with both horses and small children (not to mention the small children’s mother, who knows next to nothing about horseback riding). She’s able to nurture both of my very different girls, teaching to them exactly where they’re at, and they are having a great time and learning.

They’re learning about horseback riding, but they’re also learning other skills, and honestly, those are far more important to us than their skill at the particular activity they choose to pursue. I love that they’re learning perseverance, hard work, courage, and productive ways to channel their intensity!

I appreciate that they are getting opportunities to interact with other people outside of our family, using their words and negotiating their needs. I’m glad that they’re learning about kindness, both to people and animals.

So far this new activity has been a hit!

Meet Keena, Jefferson, and Rosie

As you’re likely aware if we are friends on Facebook or you follow me on Instagram, our family has recently grown again! Meet Keena, Jefferson, and Rosie!

from left to right, Jefferson, Rosie, and Keena

It was a bit of a journey to get them. It started when I arrived home from our church’s women’s retreat the first weekend of May to an excited announcement from the kids that there were cats in our yard! Apparently, as they’d been playing outside, they’d seen a mama cat and kittens who seemed to be living under our sunroom in the back yard. After soliciting advice on Facebook from our cat-expert friends, we decided we’d try to get them to warm up to us, so we could trap them and take them to get spayed and neutered, and we’d try to find good homes for them. And after some discussion between Matt and me, we told the kids that we could probably keep two of the kittens.

Actually, years ago, when people would ask if we had any pets, we’d look at them like they were crazy and respond that when we had the time, energy, and money to devote to another being, we’d have babies – and so we did. But now, four babies later, we think our family has all the kiddos it’s going to have. And we’ve seen the positive ways in which our children have responded to animals. And while having pets does complicate travel and does add additional responsibilities within our home, we’ve talked with friends who are cat-owners, and we’ve come to believe that adding cats to our family could be manageable.

Thus began our brief attempts to tame the cats in our back yard. We put out some soft food, which mama cat and the kittens began to eat.

I stood outside while mama cat ate, trying to get her used to my presence, so I could hopefully get close enough in the days that would follow to trap her and her kittens. Unfortunately, my presence had the opposite effect – it seems I spooked her, and we’re pretty sure that mama cat moved her little family elsewhere. We saw her a few times – always at a distance and never when we were outside – after that, but we haven’t seen the kittens since.

Our kiddos were pretty bummed and began carrying around the cat carrier we’d purchased, just practicing for the day when we could get cats for real.

After a couple days of no kitten sightings, I began researching our options for getting cats, and we decided that for our family, the ideal situation really would be to bring home some kittens. It’s definitely harder to find families for older cats…but it’s also harder for older cats to adjust to a family with many young, active children. And after reading and talking with friends about the benefits of having multiple cats, we decided we’d try to bring home 2 kittens.

Because we are us, and once a decision is made, we move, we went out that afternoon and met and played with some kittens, and that evening, we welcomed Keena and Jefferson into our family!

There was just one problem…Keena and Jefferson were part of a litter of 3 cats. I am quite sentimental, and I couldn’t stop thinking about and feeling bad for the 1 cat we’d left behind, and neither could our big girls. That night I talked to Matt, and the next afternoon I loaded the kids up into the car, and we went back to get our third kitten, now named Rosie, before anyone else could come and get her.

They are very playful!

And Madeleine CaiQun does a great job of playing with them!

But as all kittens do, they also require a great deal of sleep, which is quite adorable 🙂

We’re finding that our hypothesis is probably correct, that it’s best for our family, with our many young children, to have kittens. Atticus, in particular, requires a lot of coaching about how to treat cats with kindness and gentleness, but all of the kittens are pretty tolerant even of him!

The cats have been great snuggling companions for everyone, which has been a blessing. Everyone needs to know that they are unconditionally loved and accepted, and while Matt and I do our best to communicate our love and acceptance to all of our children, we understand that there’s also a lot of teaching and discipline in our relationships with our kids. At more difficult times, the predominant emotional sense our kids have of our relationship may not be positive, and they may not be able to receive a lot of affection from us – but the kittens will curl up on their laps and allow themselves to be petted, all the while emitting motor-like purrs of satisfaction and approval, which is so encouraging and helpful for all of our kiddos. Curling up with a kitten has definitely become another strategy in our toolbox for helping dysregulated children.

Bringing kittens into the family has added some expense and some work and a few more appointments to our lives, but overall it has been a very positive experience, and we’re glad we’ve embarked upon this journey of pet ownership!

Surgery Tomorrow Morning

Tomorrow morning we take an important step in this journey of living life with osteogenesis imperfecta (OI). FangFang is scheduled for bilateral femur rodding surgery. For those of you who would enjoy a detailed explanation, feel free to check out this link from the OI Foundation. The short version is that right now, her bone density is very low, and her right femur has significant bowing (curving). That means that if she were to try to pull to a stand (something she has been starting to attempt recently), chances are high that her femur would snap. Try to imagine for a moment the pain that would be involved in a significant break of this largest bone in your body, and you’ll understand why we’d like to avoid that scenario. Her left femur fractured about 10 months ago in China, and she had a rod placed in that leg at that time, but it will be replaced during this surgery, and her right femur will be rodded for the first time. These rods will act as internal splints, straightening the bones, giving them added strength and stability, and lessening the severity of any fractures that do occur in the future.

FangFang’s orthopedic surgeon recommended this course of action when we saw him in January, and it is the consensus of the other parents with whom we’ve spoken that it is absolutely the best choice for her. And so, instead of spring break on the beach or exploring a fun area nearby or just enjoying some quality family time at home, we have spring break: bilateral femur rodding edition.

My mom and FangFang and I made the 5 hour drive to Omaha this afternoon and got settled into our hotel room, where we hope to get some sleep before an early hospital check-in tomorrow morning.

Would you please pray for us this week as we tackle surgery and these first few days of recovery? In particular, these are some things for which we’d very much appreciate prayer –

  • that the surgery itself goes well. The surgeons performing her surgery are some of the very best surgeons in the world who specialize in caring for children with OI, and they have done this exact same operation innumerable times, and we have full confidence in them, but no surgery is ever routine when it’s for your child.
  • that we are able to manage her pain – both physical and potentially emotional – well over the next few days. Physical pain after this particular surgery is intense, and we, as well as the nurses involved in her care, will need to stay ahead of her pain with the best medications for her. Additionally, we’ve done all we can to explain what’s going to happen and read books and show her pictures, and I’m as confident as I can be for a 3-year-old who has been exposed to English for just over 3 months that she’s well-prepared, but it’s hard to know how much she understands. She’s going to wake up after surgery with an epidural and double leg splints. She’s such a happy kiddo, and I’m hoping she won’t be too distraught by her situation this week.

  • that my mom and I are able to comfort and entertain her well this week. She’s going to be in pain, and she’s going to have very limited mobility. We’re going to need to be creative and hands on in our parenting (and grandparenting) to care for her well, and while I’m hoping for some bits of down time, I don’t really know what to expect, and I know I need to be prepared for some long days and nights.
  • that Matt and our other 3 kids can have fun together during this week at home. Honestly, I think he has the harder parenting job this week, caring for 3 kids by himself 24/7 (except for brief breaks offered by a friend, for which I am SO thankful – having a couple hours to himself to run to the gym is going to make his job so much easier!).

  • that we can head home early. I’ve been told that if everything goes well, we can hope for discharge on Thursday or Friday, then they’d like us to spend another night in town, and we’d be able to head home the next day. I’d really like to be able to head home ASAP. I don’t enjoy being away from Matt and the rest of our kids, and I think FangFang will be much happier at home with her brother and sisters than stuck in a hospital room. Even tonight, as she was falling asleep in her hotel pack ‘n’ play, she repeated several times, “Night night, Atta.”
  • that we’re able, as a family, to care for FangFang well even as we return home. I really don’t know what these next few weeks will look like, and I want to be flexible with our daily routines and with school and with my expectations of what things will look like, and I hope we can all be selfless in our care for her during her recovery.
  • that the rods do their job well. FangFang very much wants to be able to stand, and we believe (and all the medical professionals with whom we interact believe) that having rods in her femurs will help her to do so safely, and we hope that is the case.

I’ll keep you informed as I’m able. Thanks so much for joining us in prayer as we take this step forward with our baby girl!

Homeschooling: It’s Not All (or Mostly) About Academics

Today’s post is a follow up to yesterday’s post with our mid-year update on our homeschooling year. At least in our house, homeschoooling is not all – or even mostly – about academics. We’ve found that the opportunities to address and build character are plentiful – generally more plentiful than we’d like. More than we want them to learn academics, we want them to grow as people.

This morning was no different. One of my girls needed to do a math lesson. The actual work of the math lesson would take her less than 5 minutes. However, from the time we got started on it until the time it was done, an hour and 15 minutes elapsed. Most of that was taken up with addressing issues of personal growth, in particular emotional growth.

A big thing we’re working on with our girls is emotional development. Specifically, we’d like them to be able to identify and self-report their emotions, and we’d like them to have healthy ways to self-regulate when they are dysregulated – when their more negative emotions are feeling overwhelming. We’ve found that the movie Inside Out is a great tool for us in that endeavor.

Today the daughter with whom I was working on this particular task drew two pictures for me as we were working through this situation. This was the first.

Here, Sadness is in charge of the control panel, and she’s giving a speech. Anger is throwing bricks to build a wall to keep Joy away, even though she is still in the control center. Joy is calling to Sadness to help her, but Sadness wants to listen to Anger, so she is saying, “Joy, stop talking!”

As my child and I talked through the situation, she told me she was ready to draw a new picture, and this is what she drew.

Now Joy has broken down the wall, about which Anger is not happy. Joy is running back to the control panel, telling everyone else, “Get out of my way!” Sadness is letting her take over again.

After that picture, we were ready to have another conversation about tackling her math work. When we’d first started the morning, she’d asked if she could have one minute to play a game of tic-tac-toe with her sister before she did math, and we’d made an agreement that that was fine, but she then needed to start math right away. However, once the game was over, she wanted to cut out their game and glue it onto another paper before doing math, and I’d said she needed to honor her agreement and get started on math, but she could cut it out as soon as she was done. That was what aroused some strong emotions and prompted our opportunity for pursuing some growth.

In our conversation after we had worked through some of those emotions, I told her I realized it was important to her to cut out the tic-tac-toe game, and I wanted to help her get to a place where she could do that. It was important to me, though, that we get started on math, since that was what our agreement had been. Perhaps we could make a compromise, though – she could do half of her math exercise right away, then cut out the tic-tac-toe game, and then finish her math. She countered with a proposal that she do only a quarter of it, but I showed her what the math exercise was and how quickly she’d be able to do it, and she agreed to do a full half.

Then it took less than five minutes for her to do half her math exercise, cut out the tic-tac-toe game, and then finish her math work.

And this mama was exhausted and told the big girls they could have a Wii bowling break before lunch, and we’d do more school after lunch!