Sunday, May 28, 2017

Five Years Ago Today

Five years ago today, a beautiful little 18-month-old baby was put into my arms, and nothing about my life has been the same since.

Some people in the adoption community call this “Gotcha Day,” the day when a family can say, “I’ve finally gotcha” to a child they have been waiting for. I realize that some folks in the adoption community have expressed sentiments in recent years about why the term Gotcha Day is problematic—mostly because it feels connected to kidnappings and forced adoptions.

I understand their sentiment, but I haven’t yet found a term that means quite the same thing. Some families say “Adoption Day, ” but in our family, THIS isn’t adoption day. Adoption Day might be the day we took Matthew to the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou and his adoption became official. It might also be the day Matthew first put his feet on American soil and became a citizen, which also clenched his adoption in our family. Or it could be the day, 15 months later, when a judge re-finalized our adoption and gave Matthew a U.S. birth certificate with our names as parents.

Today, though—today is something different, something imbued with meaning and holiness for me. It’s the day the nanny walked through the doors of the Civil Affairs office and put that little baby in my arms. I won’t ever forget that moment—how his long legs and arms clung to me in fear and wonder, how he looked up into my eyes and held my gaze for a very long time, how he felt and smelled strange and familiar all at the same time. I liken it to the moment I birthed each of my first two babies and looked into their faces for the first time—except it’s not exactly the same. You see, both Maya and Sam had become people literally right next to me, inside my body. Even though I couldn’t see their faces, I was with them every moment.

With Matthew, I felt how very far away he was. For six months after we were matched, I prayed for him, thought about him, sang to him, worried about him, and grew to love him. I stared each day at the few pictures we had of him and felt, palpably, his distance. So the moment when they put that sweet baby in my arms and I could finally look at his beautiful face, I felt a kind of profound settling that I still can’t quite put words to. I finally had that kid next to me, and there he would stay.

Five years into that story, we know it’s not been an easy path to walk. With so many challenges and delays, Matthew’s role in our family is different than we expected. But we’ve also had five years to watch him grow and change—to help him along, And he’s come SO far with love and support and care. That is rather profound to me too.

Our souls have grown deeper—literally—through the many challenges, and we are on the path to becoming the best versions of ourselves that we can be. Our big kids, too, are growing into empathetic, patient, kind human beings because of Matthew in our family. They’ve had to give and sacrifice of themselves a little, but they’ve been rewarded a hundredfold because of it. I wouldn’t change our family or these experiences for anything.

I took the early shift this morning with our boy who likes to get up around 5:30 a.m. When I heard him talking in his bed, I climbed under the covers beside him and inhaled his little boy smell. He nestled his head into my arm, stuck his thumb in his mouth, and hummed through his repertoire of favorite kid songs as he lay close beside me.

It was a symbolic way to start this morning—with my boy close by my side. Even though I’m not sure how much he understands of complicated talk, I whispered to him, Today is a special day, Buddy. Today, five years ago, you joined our family. I love you and am so happy to be your mama.

And I am, truly. Sometimes I can hardly believe five years have gone by. Other times it seems this boy has always been part of our lives. Today I give thanks for Matthew Oscar Xu-Bo Russell and remember, with reverence, the moment I first held him in my aching, waiting mama arms and could finally say, I’ve gotcha, kiddo, and I won’t ever let you go.

Saturday, March 4, 2017


One of my favorite aspects of the parenting philosophy known as "Love and Logic" is the way a parent is encouraged to practice presence with a child by sitting next to them and simply narrating the things they are doing. Not judging, not even commenting... just narrating.

As in, "Matthew, now you're picking up the truck. Now you're driving the truck. Now the truck and the car are all lined up. Now the truck is driving over the car and down to the ground. Oh look, you grabbed the purple balloon and now the truck is driving on top of the balloon."

It may seem simple or boring, but the Love and Logic parenting strategy is built on the concept that the parent attends to the child in a neutral way...that it's of great value to a child when the parent simply sits with them and notices. When we start to judge or comment, then we lay a bunch of our values or priorities on the child, which gives the child the message that they should play differently or be different than they are. But when we simply notice them and sit beside them, we affirm their personhood and give value to who they already are.

Because of Matthew's delays, I have this tendency to make every interaction with him an opportunity for him to learn and grow. But after a long day at school, with so many demands pressed upon him, I always feel like he needs to come home and simply be. Choose what he wants to do. Play with toys his own way.

So I am practicing the gift of presence by sitting alongside him, noticing aloud what he's doing so he knows I'm attending to him.

I hope this has been a gift to him. But it's most certainly been a gift to ME. I have learned all kinds of things about Matthew simply by sitting beside him and attending to whatever it is he's doing. I see his intelligence. I've learned about how he thinks. I've come to realize some of his preferences that I didn't know before. And I've done it all with a kind of stillness in my own body and heart that allows me to be in relationship with him in a calm and present way.

Freed from any expectations from me, Matthew is also free to enjoy both his playtime and my presence without feeling like he owes me something. I am finding that some of my favorite times with him are during these times of presence.

Sometimes I'm honestly not sure how much Matthew likes me. That might sound like a funny thing to say, but because of his social delays he's not a kid who says "I like you, Mama," or even expresses that sentiment with his body.

But when I sit and attend to him, I know. I know because every so often he will look over at me and hold my gaze, checking to be sure I'm still sitting there. And when I go to get up, he'll sign "sit" + "mama," telling me to sit back down and spend more time with him. And that melts my heart.

How much better my life would be if I could practice presence with everyone I encounter. I flit from one task to another all day long, sometimes barely remembering to take a breath. So my few moments of presence with Matthew are really a break from most of my life's pace.

It also dawns on me that because Matthew is pretty much non-verbal, he probably starts to resent everyone talking around him all the time. So sometimes instead of narrating what he's doing, I simply sit beside him quietly.

Last weekend we were on an island with some friends and late in the morning on Saturday, I took a walk with Matthew riding his skuut bike. We walked quite a distance and I let him set the pace of the walk. We stopped when he wanted to stop. We went extra fast when he felt like doing that too. I can't think of a time when his body was so calm, and he seemed so genuinely happy. His mama was with him, paying attention to him. My phone was put away in my pocket so I wasn't distracted, and I was free to focus on Matthew and our time together.

It was a blessed half hour with my boy, one I would have most definitely missed had I not been committed to giving him the gift of my presence.

There are many things Matthew needs from me as his mama. But perhaps one of the most powerful and lasting is that of my time and focus: of a presence unfettered by the many other distractions that life brings, a gift to him and to me.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017


 The adoption community is all about attachment. I mean REALLY all about attachment. Before we even finished the process to bring a child home, we had to attend all of these required trainings to learn how to help our new child attach to our family. Even at the time it felt a little overkill to me, but I jumped through the hoops because it was part of the expectation for adoption.

I mean, I understand: it's important for both the child and the family to feel connected, especially since you don't have the pleasure of growing a baby in your body and welcoming them into the brand-new world. To create the connections that one needs for lifetime relationship, it takes intentionality.

But recently, I have read a couple of posts from popular adoption blogs debunking the myth of attachment as the sole pinnacle of a good adoption. Kids come home with so many challenges, and it's nearly impossible to imagine that we might attached to them in the same ways that we attached to our biological children.

Maybe it depends on who the kid is that you bring home, but in our case, attaching to Matthew and loving him have taken a different path than with our first two, homegrown babies. 

And it's not bad. It's just different. It has taken me several years to be able to say these words and not feel guilty about them.

I love Matthew deeply. I do. He's a hard guy to parent, but I feel very connected to him. But because of his many challenges, especially with autism, it's not possible for me to have the same kind of social relationship that I have with my first two children. Matthew doesn't give love and affection back in the same way.

I'm being honest, I have carried a lot of shame and guilt about this for quite some time. We did everything the adoption agencies, the books and the blogs said to do: We wore him in the ergo, we did skin to skin time, We fed him his bottle hundreds of times while snuggled up close, and for several months after he came home, we kept our lives very simple and focused on him. Both my husband and I did hours and hours of floortime, playing with Matthew, teaching him skills, helping him with emotional and social growth. 

I don't regret doing any of these things. They helped build the foundation for the relationship that we have with our youngest son. But along the way I have carried quite a lot of guilt over not having an attachment with Matthew that mirrors our attachments to our other two kids.

So just like so many other things on this adoption journey, I am learning to let go of that too.

And instead I'm trying to open my heart to the relationship I do have with Matthew: one that is filled with humor, fun, and a sense of presence. When I am with him, I try my best to be very present with him. And when I'm away, I try my best to get the breaks I need and not worry about him and what he's up to. 

There are so many things I could worry about. But by letting go of some kind of forced notion of attachment, I find I can re-orient myself to the relationship I DO have with my child: One that may not look typical but is deep and real in the best way it can be. 

And then I'm free to be Matthew's mama in the best way I know, which I hope is also the best for my sweet boy.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Emotion Coaching

We’ve finally been able to take a breath at our house. The new medication seems to be working for Matthew, and he’s made his way out of the crevasse and back onto the well-trodden path, to continue a metaphor I started in another post. It’s a SNOW DAY today—no school for the kids and no work for me (I’m a high school teacher so I benefit from school closures just like my kids). I’m sitting in our living room with a steaming mug of tea while Matthew plays with a balloon he earned from pooping on the potty (his favorite reward). It’s a rare moment of calm at our house, and I’m grateful for it.

Last year during his final pre-K year, Matthew did two rounds of an autism day treatment program at the neurodevelopmental center in our city. One component of that program was a parent training course that both Aaron and I attended (one during each session). My parents came to several of the sessions as well.

During that parent training, we learned invaluable skills in working with Matthew—things I would never have figured out on my own. I would highly commend a training program to any parent—even the most experienced parent—struggling to parent a kiddo on the spectrum or with behavioral challenges.

One of the most helpful parts of that training was the series of sessions on both social coaching and emotional coaching. We’ve been using emotional coaching so much lately, as Matthew is living into being a six year old with very little spoken language and some developmental delays. I am pretty sure he feels a huge influx of emotions in his mind and heart—and sometimes those emotions are overwhelming and contribute to his challenging behaviors. Aaron has taught him the signs for several feelings: sad, mad, scared, angry, happy, excited . . . and we regularly ask him how he’s feeling or model the sign we THINK he might be feeling so he starts to learn them. He likes to play the “feeling” game, where we do a sign and then he tries to make his body act like that sign. Happy brings a smile, angry brings a scrunched-up face and a tense body, and so on.

This isn’t by any means the entirety of our parenting or working with Matthew’s challenging behaviors, but it feels like we are building a foundation of skills that will help equip Matthew for more independent, autonomous interactions and relationships.

These are things that typically developing kids tend to learn on their own just by watching the modeling around them. But it takes extra work for a kiddo like Matthew to gain these skills—and yet they are important for all children.

As I’ve said before, we don’t exactly know where Matthew will land when he is an adult. His development Is pretty uncertain at this point. But equipping him with skills to express his emotions seems like a good plan no matter how independent or dependent he is as an adult.

It might make his teenage years easier too. In fact, emotional coaching would probably help every teenager, so we must be doing something right.

Anyhow, I'm happy to report things are on the upswing here. It feels good to be back dealing with the layers of behavior that we are used to. It's funny how hard things become normal--but that's what life is these days. So we're digging in, embracing this path because it's the only one we've got!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

To medicate or not to medicate: that is the question.

The topic of medication is a very controversial one when caring for a child with neurological challenges. Ask most parents and you'll find that they have a strong opinion, one way or another: some families would NEVER put their children on medication while others COULDN’T live without meds. I enter this topic with a great deal of trepidation because soon after we made the decision to put Matthew on meds, someone I know wrote me an email begging me to consider other options, shaming me into feeling like I was a bad parent, taking the easy way out by medicating him.

Jeesh—the things we say to each other sometimes.

In truth, we thought long and hard about medications before finally turning to them. We tried behavioral intervention, a “sensory rich” diet of activities, clothing, weighted blankets, arm brushing, pressure on the skin, a sensory swing, and just about every other option.

But there came a point where it was obvious that Matthew’s challenges were beyond external supports. He obviously didn’t feel good in his own body, and we were failing at trying to help him from the outside. So with careful consultation with a wonderful neuropediatrician at Seattle Children’s Developmental Center, we launched Matthew into the world of medication, little by little, to help support him on the inside.

Meds haven’t changed Matthew—they haven’t taken away his challenges. But we have found several medications that help him feel more at home in his body. Far from being sedated or “drugged out,” Matthew is actually more clear and focused with the support of medications. He’s less anxious, more able to engage and learn, and more willing to practice his communication skills with us. School days are easier and more focused. He’s learning more.

I am grateful we finally decided to go down this path.

And that’s a lot for me to say, since I’m the parent who tries every single home remedy before taking my child to the doctor for an antibiotic. We take food-grade essential oils in capsules when we are sick and we eat foods to keep our immune system strong. I’m a regular walker and jogger, I take yoga weekly to manage my stress. I’m not one of those parents who quickly jumps to medication. Believe me, I do everything to avoid medication most of the time.

But when you are a person whose body chemistry is totally out of whack, like Matthew, then I have a hard time saying NO to something that will help him feel more at home in his body.

Of course one of the risks of medication is that it can work for a while and then all of a sudden NOT WORK any longer. This is what seemed to happen for Matthew in late November and early December when his behavior started going downhill. Nothing changed in his life or in our lives—he was in the same routines at the same school—the same teacher, the same caregivers, the same expectations.

But all of a sudden the cocktail of medications that were working started to NOT WORK any more.

And this is always the risk—when one’s body chemistry is imbalanced, then there is always a possibility that medication won’t work the same way all the time. That reality is frustrating and a little scary too.

I don’t really have any life-changing advice about medication. I do know that we live in a culture that has the reputation of being quick to medicate its children to avoid dealing with their behavior. But for families like ours, knee deep in “dealing” with behavior, sometimes our best intentions and research-based actions aren’t enough. If behavioral challenges are a form of suffering for our kiddos, and there are medications that can help our kids feel less dysregulated and more at home in their bodies, why would we deny them that experience?

All I can say is this: each family and child is unique. As parents of these very difficult children, we need the opportunity to make the decision that is best for each of us. For our family, saying YES to medication for Matthew has been the right decision. I don’t regret it for a second.

If saying NO is the best decision for you and your child, then that’s clearly what you should do. Please don’t hear this post as an endorsement for medicating kids who have neurological challenges. It’s just one mama’s story, shared with honesty and a big dose of humility too.

One last thing we have learned—medication doesn’t (and cannot) turn a behaviorally challenged child into a little angel. I think that’s one of the biggest misunderstandings about psychotropic medication. Our kids still deal with all their challenges. But with a calmer body to start with, they are more likely to find success (and us too) after all the work and effort. Medication doesn’t turn our dysregulated boy into a neurotypical kiddo who is similar to his peers. He’s still a bizarre, unique little person. But he’s able to be a little more at home in his body, and as a result, we all get to be a little more at home when we are together too.