Friday, November 29, 2013

This Birthday

One day when you are 23, I will tell you about this birthday—the fusing of a day of thanks with celebrating your life and birth.

I will tell you how you were finally interested in opening presents, but how you stood there patiently while your brother and sister gave you a hand.

I will tell you that you watched the dining room chandeliere almost the whole time your cake was in front of you, the candles beckoning your breath—and how finally, when your sister and brother flanked you, you turned to the cake and blew out your candles alongside them.

I’ll tell you how it was an ordinary day to you—filled with playing and a good nap. How you ate the regular old food you normally ate, and wouldn’t take more than a bite of your birthday cake.

And most of all, I’ll tell you just how thankful I am that you are part of our family—what a gift it is to watch you learn and grow—and how I cannot even imagine who you will be and what you will do when you are 23.

For now I am content to ring in your fourth year of life and feel this deep gratitude for the crossing over that your birthday is—18 months in the orphanage, and now 18 months in our family. And every day that we now live together is a day longer that you have been a Russell boy.

Happy Birthday Matthew!

Thursday, November 28, 2013


Dearest Woman,

Today is our boy’s third birthday. I’m pretty sure you know this as well as I do—because who could have possibly forgotten the moment this glorious boy made his way into the world? I cannot begin to understand the circumstances that surrounded your choices or your life, and I’ve never felt anything but grateful to you for the gift of my boy. We are two women separated by an ocean and so many miles and entirely different cultures, but today I feel your presence here and I’m thankful.

The past couple of months I’ve had the privilege of an inside peek into the orphanage where our boy lived for 18 months—and I’ve also seen photos and heard stories about the towns and villages that surround it. Those stories paint a picture of a very humble existence—simple homes, very little resources, few jobs. Even more than before, I can imagine that your choice to give up our boy may have been borne from an act of compassion, alongside the reality that you could never give this baby the kind of life he deserved.

I’d give anything just to be able to let you know that he’s safe and well.

He laughs a lot, our beautiful boy—and giggles and plays hard and gives the most exquisite kisses. He wraps his arms around my neck a lot these days too—pressing his body into mine, seeming to say “Mama, I’m yours.” Sometimes these moments make tears well up in my eyes, as I feel deep in my heart a sense of home with this boy. We’ve had to learn to love each other—to be attached and connected like this. But we’ve done the hard work, and now we are reaping the goodness.

I catch his eye sometimes, or see an expression that’s new, and I wonder, WHO in your family does he look like? A cousin, perhaps, or an uncle? Maybe he has his mama’s eyes or his daddy’s smile. I’d also give anything for him to know of his beginnings. But all I have are a few photos of his orphanage, a handful of snapshots of a few of the other kids who were there with him (we call them his Xuwen cousins), and the story of his Gotcha Day and our ten days together in China.

But I do know what it feels like to love a baby growing in my womb—to feel a head crowning inside me, to see my newborn’s face for the first time and examine every inch of that perfect body.  And although I’m pretty sure the moment of our boy’s birth might have also been filled with trauma and sadness for you, I think you swaddled that boy and held him to you for as long as you possibly could before letting him go.

We are both mamas to this beautiful boy—you gave him life and I get to help him grow. This isn’t the way things were created to work, I know—it’s messy and filled with loss and grief. But joy is here too, especially for me. I’ll never how exactly how it is for you, but I will hold you close to my heart always, and I’ll pray for you and honor you, and one day when our boy asks, I’ll tell him honestly just how much I love you and have since the moment I knew he was going to be my son.

Dearest woman, halfway around the world, we are bound by something complex and beautiful—heart wrenching and gorgeous at the same time.  And today I think especially of you and the gift you have given me in Matthew.

On this day of Thanksgiving, I am especially thankful for you.

Happy Birthday to our boy—three years old today!
With the deepest respect,

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Xuwen Social Welfare Institute

I’ve stumbled upon something really amazing that I wanted to share, particularly for the Chinese adoptive families reading our blog. Last week, I started doing some research online about Matthew’s orphanage, the Xuwen Social Welfare Institute (Xuwen SWI) and found a Yahoo group that has been in existence for about seven years full of families who have children from Matthew’s same orphanage.

I’ve been reading conversation upon conversation between families who have kids from Xuwen, and I’ve now seen photos of the inside of the orphanage, learned that there have been three research trips taken there where families have received amazing information about their children (details about the finding spot, finding clothes, additional medical records, etc).

Another thing that has been almost life altering for Aaron and me is to learn that many of the children coming home from Xuwen SWI share some of the same challenges upon getting home. Most of them seem to have significant oral aversion or oral motor delays (which Matthew does have, but he’s continuing to move forward in working through them). I’ve also learned that those who have visited the orphanage (several families, a guide, and two researchers) have never seen a single toy inside the orphanage. This would explain Matthew’s slow start with play, and the way he had no idea what to do with the toys we gave him while in China and when we first got home.

Most of the reports from the orphanage are that it is in a very poor area and the staff, though kind and doing the best they can, seem to have very few resources and too many babies (sometimes upwards of 50 in one orphanage).

One other thing I find interesting about the Yahoo group and all the photo of the kids from Xuwen SWI, is that many of the children from the orphanage share similar facial features—in ways that are almost uncanny. I was flipping through the online photo albums tonight, showing Aaron child after child who looked like he or she could be a sibling to Matthew. Deep, brown eyes that are wide in the center and come to a delicate point on either side, creamy easily tanned skin, longish face shapes. A couple other parents, in the conversations I read, remarked that many of the kids who come home from Xuwen SWI look a lot alike, and I would agree. Matthew looks like he fits into that group of kiddos. The “Xuwen cousins,” everyone on the blog calls them.

I’m really excited to join this group—excited about the possibility of finding some ot her families whose children were also in the orphanage when Matthew was there. Excited about the possibility of some day purchasing a book or video that would contain pictures and information about the orphanage and the surrounding area.

At first the photos and stories were hard for me, but tonight I’m SO energized thinking about the gift that this resource is to Aaron and me, for now, and for Matthew in the future. I’m also SO encouraged to hear the updates from families who brought home children from Xuwen in 2006, 2007 and 2008 (and even after) whose kids are thriving after experiencing so many challenges at first. Their kind words, though not directly TO me, obviously, spoke to my heart and reminded me that we are so early into this journey with Matthew.

And what a blessing to have this Yahoo group resource—something I might not have thought to look into were it not for my phone conversation with another adoptive mama out there on Bainbridge Island, who shared that she done the same thing and found good resources about her daughter’s orphanage.

Tonight I’m energized by all the stories and the sense of “virtual” community that the Internet affords a family like ours—desperately wanting connection with Matthew’s story and history—and grateful for all the “new” Xuwen cousins we’ve discovered that Matthew has in the U.S. and around the world this night.

Here are a few photos I’ve found so far of the orphanage.

Xuwen Social Welfare Institute
The "baby room" on the 2nd floor (likely where Matthew slept)

A view out the front gates

The back side of the orphanage

Friday, November 15, 2013

Folk Music & Shadows

There’s this really awkward moment when you have a child adopted from an orphanage who is delayed—when you go see the pediatrician and the receptionist hands you the development questionnaire and asks you to fill it out while you are waiting in the waiting room. It’s the one for 24 month olds, or 2 ½ year olds, or 3-year olds—or whatever.

It comes with the very best of intentions, I know—so I try not to be too frustrated as it’s handed across the counter to me. Doctors want to make sure they are catching delays early enough—so if parents check enough “no” boxes (as in, “is your child saying 25 or more words, yes or no?”) it alerts them that the child is probably needing some interventions.

But with our Matthew, we know that already. So I’ve stopped filling out those questionnaires—it’s my mama resistance, I suppose, to the status quo of standard-based child raising and benchmarks and expectations.

“No thank you,” I say kindly, and hand it back. “Our doctor already knows that our son is delayed. I don’t have the heart to check 37 ‘no’ boxes again today.”

But in my heart what I’m really thinking is, “What I’d love to do instead is to tell you all the milestones Matthew has achieved since the last time we were here.”

But unfortunately no one asks me that.

So let’s pretend YOU asked me. Let’s pretend you want to know what new things Matthew Oscar Xu-Bo Russell is up to right now.

“Oh, you want to know what new things he’s doing?” I say, secretly thrilled. “Well, let me tell you.”

Matthew—our boy—loves to dance when I play the guitar. He parades ‘round the kitchen with his older brother, wiggling his bottom and clapping his hands.  Any kind of music thrills our boy—but especially the folk music his mama plays on her guitar. When Dad gets out his drum and starts beating along, then it’s pure joy for our boy.

I realize that if Matthew had been adopted by some other family in some other part of the country, it could very well be jazz or country western or some other genre of music that our boy would be dancing to. But there’s something about folk music—about its accessibility and its rhythm—that stirs this kiddo’s soul and gets right to his heart.

Matthew also LOVES trucks—which isn’t new, as our boy has always traveled through his days with at least one truck in his hand. But these days he’s driving his trucks around the floor, sometimes even making “vroom, vroom” noises as he does so.

“Functional play,” our speech therapist calls this, and she’s thrilled that Matthew’s reached this milestone. I’m thrilled too, as I know that Matthew’s moving along the developmental spectrum—slowly but surely!

And he’s also become my shadow. Everywhere I go, he goes. To you this might not seem amazing, but to me it is. Matthew’s awareness of other people—particularly his mama—is a new development for him. Anyone who saw him in his first several months home will attest to what an amazing thing this is—to be aware of where I am and where I am going. He picks up whatever style of truck is in his hand at the moment (for there is ALWAYS some truck in his hand at every waking moment of the day, as I assured you earlier) and comes to find me. I can be in the basement or in the attic, and that kid will find me and come play with his toys right beside me.

What an amazing development for him.

Tonight for some reason this struck me as important—these little, small milestones. My heart filled with joy, I sang my heart out in the kitchen with my guitar as Matthew danced at my side, truck in his hand—joyful and full of glee at the music and the love that wraps around him in this life.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Crossing into Two

One of the things I’m aware of with Matthew, that is exactly the same as our first two children, is the way development sneaks up on us when we don’t even realize it. Everything seems so slow around here, until something pushes it over the edge and all of a sudden I’m aware of the enormous gains Matthew has made.

I can officially say that developmentally, Matthew has crossed into the terrible twos.

As you might imagine, this is both good news and bad news for our family.

First the GOOD NEWS: The terrible twos require a child to have a significant sense of agency—to have wants and desires he can’t express readily—and to feel like he’s safe enough to then be frustrated and throw a tantrum as a result. It’s a beautiful stage of development that I’m pretty sure all kids must go through on some level in order to move across a healthy development spectrum. So you can see why we are in some ways thrilled with this new stage.

But then the BAD NEWS: Compounded by his lack of language, the terrible twos have already proved to be really hard. All our kid has to express himself are about 10 signs, his body, and his voice. Several times a day, it’s clear that he wants or needs something from me—something I can’t understand—something that’s relatively complex. And when I don’t respond in a way that he wants, he immediately erupts into this ball of crying, pounding, kicking energy on the floor.

Dear me.

I find I actually have a lot of empathy for him—and can imagine how frustrating it is to be feeling complex emotions and making sense of the world around you, all the while feeling like the rest of the people in your life have no idea what you need.

And I will admit as Matthew’s mama that it’s challenging for me as well (and for Aaron and Maya and Sam too).

So we’re taking a collective deep breath and continuing to remind ourselves that although this particular season feels very TRYING, it’s our job as Matthew’s family to shepherd him through it as gracefully as we can.

As my friend Kim told me once when Maya was a baby, “each stage WILL pass eventually, and a new one will come.” I’m holding on to her words for probably the twentieth time in my parenting journey, trusting and believing from experience that this too is just a stage, which is easier bought in the early morning before the kids are awake than it is at 5pm in the middle of Matthew’s fifth meltdown of the day.

We do have some other good updates to share, thought.

Last week Matthew had his hearing tested on the right side (the last “all clear” we received was for the left ear!) and the test confirmed normal hearing on both ears (they actually got to the right and the left this time). So for now, we are moving forward able to rest confidently in the knowledge that Matthew has average/normal hearing. Hooray!

Also, I received a call from our school district on Friday confirming Matthew’s placement in the developmental preschool classroom at a local elementary school beginning December 2. This is also good news, especially during a season when we have felt very frustrated about the hit-and-miss care from our speech language pathologist. In fact, as I’m typing this, it’s been three FULL weeks since she was here working with Matthew. Ugh.

We are grateful for the daily developmental learning support that Matthew will receive in his preschool classroom. I look forward to visiting the classroom sometime in the next couple of weeks, just so I know where he is going each day. A short bus will come to our house to pick him up—he’ll have his own car seat on the bus, which one of us will strap him into. Then his teacher will take him off the bus at school and help him into the classroom.

It’s a big step for our family, but one that I am hoping will be so rich and wonderful for Matthew.

Finally, I was so blessed last week to have a phone conversation with another adoptive mom whose daughter, brought home from China just three months before Matthew, is experiencing some very similar delays and challenges as we are seeing with Matthew. She’s also not talking, and has been slow to respond to her social environment. Her mother and I both feel strongly that our kids received very neglected experiences in their Chinese orphanages, and we could talk very openly about how angry we both still feel about the poor starts to life our children received where they were.

I’ll admit to you that sometimes we still feel somewhat alone on this adoption journey—while there are many parallels to other families’ stories, ours also feels really unique sometimes. I was so heartened to connect with another person who is experiencing a lot of what we are right now. Deep love and attachment for our child coupled with some pretty overwhelming delays. And most of all, a very uncertain future.

For we have no idea where Matthew will end up in his life. I’ve been so grateful that those in the medical profession who are caring for us have been resistant to diagnosing or labeling Matthew just yet. I still feel like he’s waking up from his “orphanage coma” and we haven’t seen him completely emerge yet.

Which is hard, but also exciting—this waiting to see how things unfold. I do know that I continue to feel so thankful for all the support we receive from family and friends, who cheer with us (and groan a little too) as the temper tantrums begin and the little boy continues to come out of his shell.

So thank you—it means so much to share this journey with you.

Heading out for a walk with Mama.
Pumpkin carving complete!

Pippi Longstocking smiles at Elmo on Halloween evening.