Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Birth of Juliana Grace (A Retrospective)

I can hardly believe that six years ago, I was still impatiently awaiting this day that would change my life in ways I couldn't possibly imagine.  I wrote up my birth story at the time, but as I have since published my other birth stories, I wanted to publish this story as well, with a few additional thoughts.  This is for all my friends who enjoy birth stories as much as I do!

On Saturday morning I woke up to my first regular contractions. “This is it!” I thought, but they stayed mild and went away after a few hours. The baby was moving a ton all morning – in retrospect, I think she was probably twisting around frontwards! I kept expecting the contractions to start up again, but since nothing was happening I went with my mom to a quilt show in a historical southern home. It was so hot that I started feeling sick, so we headed home to rest. That night we watched Star Wars: A New Hope and I finally went to bed around midnight (what can I say, I didn't actually have kids yet).

I woke up to contractions at about 2:30am, after a couple of hours sleep. I had been having a lot of Braxton-Hicks contractions over the past couple of weeks, but these felt different. I timed them for about an hour and they stayed about 5-7 minutes apart so we headed for the hospital, 45 minutes away.

Looking back I realized I could have stayed at home much longer, but it was the first baby and I had no idea how things would go. I was measuring 5cm at my appointment a few days before and my midwife thought labor might progress quickly, so she suggested heading to the hospital as soon as I was having regular contractions. She also said I had a “perfect pelvis,” which is about the best compliment you can get when you are about to give birth!

I had been dreading the long car ride, but the contractions were still mild, so it was actually pretty peaceful – not much traffic at 4am. When we got to the hospital at 4:30, I was still measuring 5 cm. After monitoring my contractions for a while, nurse said to go walk around some and they'd check again in a couple of hours.

My mom had come with us to the hospital and by now my dad and cousin were in the waiting room. My dad hadn't brought anything to do; he said, “I thought the baby might be here by now!” With all four kids, my mom rushed to the hospital and the baby was usually born within the hour, sometimes before the doctor arrived. (See where Adalyn's labor came from?) My cousin walked with Kevin and I all around the hospital, where she had given birth almost exactly a year before.

I was checked again at 7:30am but was still at 5cm. The contractions were coming 3-5 minutes apart but not much stronger than before. We were officially admitted and after settling into our room, we listened Enya and tried to rest for a bit. I spent most of the next three hours walking the halls with my mom and cousin, slowing or pausing during contractions.  Every so often, the nurse or midwife would hook me up to the fetal monitor and predictably my very regular contractions would immediately stop. We would wait for ten or even twenty minutes and then as soon as the nurse left, they resumed their 3-4 minute pattern. I told the nurse my uterus must have performance anxiety (which after reading Ina May makes perfect sense).
One last pregnancy picture at the hospital
When the midwife checked me again at noon, I was 7.5cm. I was glad that there was finally more progress, though it didn't seem like much after all those hours. The midwife asked if I wanted to consider having my water broken to help things progress more quickly. She knew I wanted a natural delivery and was afraid that I would be too exhausted once we got to pushing. We discussed what would happen and any risks involved.

Kevin had gone to grab some lunch, so when he came back we talked together and decided to go ahead with it. I was a little nervous because I knew things would get more intense. The contractions had been hurting, but they had still been very manageable up until now.

My cousin offered to stay if I wanted her there. I found her presence reassuring since she had been through all this recently and really knew what I was experiencing. When my water was broken, there was meconium in the fluid. The midwife explained that probably everything was okay, but they would need to have a fetal monitor on me the rest of the time (fortunately a portable one) and the NICU doctor would be there at delivery to check out the baby.

My contractions did immediately get stronger, and I started throwing up. I was glad when that was over and I could concentrate on breathing. I decided to sit in the shower and run warm water over my belly and back to help with the pain. I found the water so helpful that I stayed there for the next few hours.

Kevin sat/squatted behind me, putting pressure on my back, guiding me in breathing, encouraging me and massaging my tensed muscles to help me relax between contractions. My cousin sat beside me with a cold wash cloth, offering encouragement, reminding me to breathe, and feeding me ice chips. During this period, the contractions were intense and I had a hard time not tensing up, but I was able to manage them pretty well with breathing and was feeling good about things.

At 3:40 pm, the midwife checked me again and told me the bad news – I hadn't progressed any further. She discovered the reason for the lack of progress was that the baby was posterior (facing forward). The midwife tried to manually turn the baby internally – the one time I remember screaming - but was unfortunately unsuccessful. Because of the baby's position, I had started having bad back pain which made the contractions much more difficult. I also felt very discouraged, thinking, “All that work and no progress. The baby is stuck. This is going to go on forever and is only getting worse.”

The midwife wanted me to get on hands and knees for a while to see if the baby would turn. I got back in the shower, kneeling on a yoga mat, but this time the water and breathing weren't doing much. The whole universe compressed into the space of one shower, the world was lost in pain, and time itself stood still in deference to the cosmic force of labor.

Because the baby's head was putting uneven pressure on my cervix, I was completely dilated on one side so my body felt ready to push, but the other side was not complete. I didn't recognize the desire to push – I just knew that during each contraction my body seized up, my concentration broke, and I found myself gasping and unable to breathe. The back pressure was unrelenting and even in the brief breaks between contractions I couldn't function clearly. I started telling the others, “I can't do this.”

The midwife said, “Just stay here for 20 more minutes. You can do it.” When I kept saying I couldn't do it anymore, she would say, “You've just got 5 more minutes,” stretching out each 5 minutes into 10 and 15 minutes more. Somewhere inside my mind I knew the game she was playing, but I was too absorbed to argue. Who was I to judge twenty minutes from two hours, when time had ceased to exist?

In reality, it was about an hour until I went back and laid on the bed. All my muscles were tensed and fatigued, but I was too overwhelmed to relax. The midwife gave me a narcotic shot, which allowed me to rest some between contractions. I was pretty out of it, but I could still feel all the pain, and I didn't think I could handle it anymore.

Though I hadn't planned to have one, I told the midwife I wanted an epidural. She told me to make sure I was 100% certain about it, and after a few more contractions I decided I was. The nurses started me on some preparatory IV fluids and the midwife checked the baby again. The baby had turned somewhat, but now her head was crooked so her ear was facing down, and I was continuing to dilate unevenly. After unsuccessfully trying to turn the baby again, the midwife had me turn on my side hoping gravity would help.

I had to wait for the IV fluids to finished, but at 5:15 I was ready for the epidural. The anesthesiologist had been called, and the midwife checked me one more time. She said, “I don't think you want this epidural – you're ready to push!” I could hardly believe it! I really thought it would be hours more before I got to this point. She asked if I still wanted the epidural and I said no. I was still in pain but I didn't feel so discouraged anymore. The end was in sight! With a bustle of activity, everyone got into delivery mode.

I found pushing much easier. The contractions weren't as bad because now I had something I could do – what my body had been wanting to do all this time. I was working with them instead of just riding them out. I pushed for about 40 minutes. I kept my eyes closed almost the whole time and concentrated. Afterward I discovered I had a big fat lip – I must have been biting down on it. I could hear the nurses and midwife calling encouragement and helping me know when to push. Kevin stood beside me and held my hand. Everyone exclaimed when they could see the baby's head with all her hair.

And then, at 5:55pm, baby was born! I heard her start crying right away, and she was whisked off to the side where it seemed like a whole pack of doctors and nurses were waiting to check her out.

At first I just felt incredible relief. I couldn't quite connect what had just happened to “I have a baby now.” I was aware of all kinds of activity – Kevin cutting the cord, the nurses telling her weight and length and apgar score. In the meantime, the midwife was still with me and I felt consumed with the final stage of labor. I had a moderate tear, and though the stitches didn't hurt as much as everything else had, I just wanted it to be done. I was shaking all over and my arms felt like dead weight, but I had returned to the land of time and space.

During the whole time, I didn't really even look at the baby. I thought this might seem uncaring, but I had the idea that when when I saw the baby I wanted to be able to really concentrate on her, and I felt like I wouldn't be able to do that at the time.
She was pretty thrilled about the examination
The midwife finished with the stitches just about when the doctors and nurses finished checking out the baby. They handed her to me, and I got to look at Juliana for the first time. I still couldn't believe that she was my baby, the baby that had been inside of me all this time. I didn't feel the rush of love – that would develop gradually – instead I felt something more like awe. I thought she was the most beautiful baby I had ever seen. She curled up contentedly on my chest because in this big, new, crazy world, she already knew me.
Yup, still not sold on the outside world
My birth experience was not exactly what I expected it to be. How can you really know what to expect from labor when you haven't experienced it before? It was much more difficult than I had thought, much more cosmic. In the hours afterward, when all the pain was still quite fresh in mind, mostly I just felt grateful for the experience. I was grateful to the midwife for continuing to try different things when another doctor might have just done a c-section. I was grateful for the opportunity to go through that with Kevin, really working together. I was grateful for the unflagging support of my cousin, woman helping woman as it has always been. I was grateful for the strength I didn't know I had, to keep on going past what I thought I could endure.

My other birth experiences were quite different - a whirlwind delivery and a peaceful, even enjoyable labor - but I am glad that this is my story of becoming a mother. It helped prepare me for what was ahead.

And as everyone says, in the end, it is always more than worth it!

Friday, September 9, 2016

How We Do School

We don't have an actual school space so we use the corner of the living room, where baby can play on the floor nearby.  Sometimes the girls like to pretend they have real desks though.
 This week Juliana and Adalyn happily donned princess and Minnie Mouse backpacks and headed off to school together. Juliana is starting her last year of Chinese kindergarten. She technically graduated kindergarten last year with the rest of her class, but since she's not yet old enough to start primary school we wanted her to go another year.

We first talked to the school about this in April. They said ask again in July. We asked in July; they said ask again on the next to last day. That day they said come back after school is finished. Then come back on the first day of school, September 1. But that day all the leaders were gone at meetings so on Monday, finally, Kevin went with Juliana and was able to talk to the principal who said, “Okay, she can start today.”
Ready to head to school.  We take Juliana on bike or both the girls in our little electric cart. (Look at those jackets! We officially survived summer!)
Kindergarten in China lasts for three years, starting at 3 years old. Each class stays together with the same classmates and teachers for all three years. This year Juliana will repeating the oldest grade. She has new classmates and teachers, who seem very nice. It will be a transition, since most of her old friends have moved on to primary school, but fortunately she is already familiar with the school and they with her. While most kindergarteners attend from 8am-5:30pm, we pick up Juliana at noon so she can do home school and have down time in the afternoon.

Adalyn is starting her first year of preschool! She is going two mornings a week to a small school held in an apartment with only about 12-15 other kids. The teachers are very nice and speak a little bit of English, and it's a laid-back, play-based environment. On her first day, Adalyn headed straight for the toys with barely a goodbye. She is pretty pleased about being big enough to go to school like Juliana. Her school is about 25 minutes away, so we'll be spending a lot of time carting back and forth, but fortunately it is in the same direction as Juliana's school.

We plan for Adalyn to start kindergarten next year, so I think this will be good preparation. I don't feel like academics are necessary at this stage, but it will be helpful for her to be in a Chinese environment and around other kids her age. She hasn't been very interested in speaking Chinese lately, so I think this will be motivating.

In the afternoons, after rest/nap time, we will be continuing with home-school. Juliana did “early kindergarten” last year and now will be doing K/1. You don't have to worry too much about grade distinction in home-school, which is convenient with two late-September babies who are right at the cut-off. I think our home-school will look a lot like last year.

Adalyn joins us for songs, talking about the calendar and weather, and practicing a Bible memory verse. She usually stays around to listen to our FIAR read-aloud book, if it's not too long. We've been doing Five in a Row for 1.5 years. Each week or two we do a unit focusing on a different children's book. We read the book aloud each day and do language arts, social studies, science, and art activities related to the book. Next year we'll probably move on to something with a little more structure, but I have really liked this for early grades. It is very gentle and experiential.

For instance, this week we are starting with a book called The Salamander Room. We'll learn some about salamanders, talk about animal habitats and go on a nature hunt, make and decorate salt dough salamanders and create a little habitat diorama. Juliana will dictate her own imaginative story about having an animal live in her room and paint a picture to go along with it. As we go along we generally examine the artwork in the book, talk about different basic literary elements, and talk about some of the interactions in the book.
The girls collected nature items to make habitats for their salt dough salamanders

Juliana also does Math U See and All About Reading. She likes the games but is less enthusiastic about the practice required. I like both the curriculums pretty well and plan to continue on with these in the future. Adalyn likes playing with math blocks and doing the reading games.

I am planning to do a little bit of a “Letter of the Week” curriculum with Adalyn this year too. It has some letter recognition, pre-writing skills, cutting and sorting activities, patterns, and that of thing. We'll see how much we actually do. Sometimes Adalyn likes to have some work to do along with Juliana, but sometimes she just wants to play.
Some days school goes well and feels inspirational. Other days it is pulling teeth to get absolutely anywhere and we spend 40 minutes trying to get through a few math pages. So, pretty normal. It is a lot harder to get Juliana to focus when she has already been in a school setting all morning, but kindergarten is great for her Chinese development and social needs.

Overall I enjoy home schooling but I also really enjoy sending my kids off to school sometimes.  We'll see what the future will look like, but right now I'm glad that we can take part in both worlds!

One year + one week down, 18 or so years to go... 
[fade off to me quietly screaming in the background]

Monday, August 8, 2016

An Inconvenient Life

“Why is it so hard to accomplish ANYTHING?”

I ask myself this question nearly every day. Of course most of the difficulty results from three small, messy, needy people. I generally feel like I could spend absolutely all of my time just keeping us fed, clothed, and decently clean. And we have an ayi (house helper) who comes twice a week to wash dishes and clean the floor and water the plants, which otherwise would have all died long ago! So how is it possibly so hard to stay on top of things?

I read a post the other day in which a woman described why she had so much more difficulty accomplishing her chores in China than when she lived in the US. It was a good read for me. I have never lived in my own home in the US post children, so I don't have anything to compare it with.

I've spent 9.5 years in China, and most of life has become so normal that I forget there really are a lot of differences between what my daily life would be like here or in America. I'm honestly not trying to complain or say “Oh my life is so hard.” Some of the things I like about life here are the relative simplicity, the daily walking and biking and stair climbing, the necessity of buying from small shops and making things from scratch. And obviously my daily tasks are nothing compared to the majority world.

But I wanted to give an idea of why it can by challenging to do daily life in a foreign country, so here are some examples.

  • The supermarket is so loud, so crowded, and such stimulation overload that I avoid going whenever possible. People peering into your shopping cart, fawning over your children, shoving in front of you to weigh vegetables – just not my favorite.
  • Buying food and daily necessities involves a lot of different stops. We go to one store to buy bread, another for paper, another for vegetables and eggs, another for light bulbs. A stop at the meat market, the honey seller, the fruit get the idea.
  • Sometimes it's ridiculously hard to find what you want. A needed tool or office supply might be found only after searching dozens of small shops full of random things.
  • You can buy almost anything online...if you can find it. But sometimes figuring out the Chinese name for an obscure item involves a great deal of guess work. We have to trek across campus to pick up any packages, mostly delivered to the gate farthest away from our home.
  • A small fridge and freezer means it's hard to stock up on anything or make food ahead of time. And a third of my freezer is filled with coffee because...priorities.
  • Almost everything is made from scratch with very few “convenience” items. Anytime a recipe calls for a can of something or a type of seasoning, that means extra steps to make it. Even something simple like spaghetti involves chopping a bunch of vegetables to make the spaghetti sauce.
  • Most western recipes involve ingredients I don't have and require a good deal of substitution and experimentation.
  • We never wear shoes inside, but our floors (white tile!) get dirty within about an hour of being cleaned. They show every single spot. And it is just so much dirtier here. I can't even imagine what would happen if we wore shoes in the house!
  • Since we live on the edge of the desert, we get a lot of dust. Dust storms in the spring leave the floor gritty even if the (not so sealed) windows are closed.
  • No dishwasher and no hot water in the sinks
  • China doesn't do closets, and obviously we have no basements or attics or storage sheds, so storage is often a problem. Out of season clothes are stored in suitcases piled on top of cupboards. We utilize the space under our beds, behind chairs, and in corners. I'm certain we have a lot less clothes, toys, and household items than most our home-owning US friends, but I am continually reorganizing and purging because we have so much stuff!
  • Our washer is much smaller than the standard US variety, so with three kids + cloth diapers, it's possible I could do laundry all day until I died and never be done.
  • No dryer means an extra step of hanging clothes to dry and then taking them down to fold
  • Fortunately clothes dry really quickly in our dry climate, but we still have to plan out when to wash clothes so they will all fit on the laundry porch.
  • Kids' clothes get covered Chinese food grease stains and coal dust, and though I work real hard at it, I apparently do not have the gift of stain removal.
Other Household Considerations
  • Old or not so high quality items constantly need fixing. Our toilet stops flushing, the cabinet doors fall off, the fridge stops cooling, pipes leak... We can either wait for days until a handyman can do a (usually very temporary) fix, or Kevin spends a lot of time fixing things himself.
  • No AC means hot summers when it is hard to sleep or get anything done. And of course the windows are always open, bringing in more dust and allergens.
  • We have no control over our heat, which runs at a set temperature November 1 to March 31 regardless of weather. (But unlike the southern China, we do HAVE heat, which is huge.)
  • A smallish apartment means we really need to get outside every day or people start going crazy.
  • We live on the 5th floor, so going anywhere involves a lot of stairs. Coaxing a tired two year old up five flights of stairs while carrying a heavy baby and a big bag of groceries is tiring.
  • Making your own baby food is the only option (small amounts of canned baby food can be bought at very high prices)
  • Our little three-wheeled electric cart makes life a lot more manageable with children, since they don't all fit on our bikes. But it barely goes faster than a bike, so it still doesn't make for speedy travel.
  • Homeschooling is the only good, long-term option for our kids here, which means we'll be hauling over a lot of school books in coming years! It will be an ever larger time commitment on my part. It also requires creativity and resourcefulness (and a whole lot of YouTube) when you can't pop into the library, find some common supplies, or send your kids to extracurricular activities.
  • Sometimes really simple things like getting necessary vaccinations involve an overnight trip to another city.
  • This is the only life our kids have known, so they don't realize sometimes how hard it is on them. People watching them and touching them and wanting to take their picture every single time we go outside anyway ever. Ridiculous 30 hour trips and jet-lag and transitions. Trying to understand why you can ride without a car seat, slurp noodles from your bowl, and walk in the road in China but not America. They don't realize these things are weird, but they do feel the impact. And I realize and sometimes feel the weight of their childhood.

Like I said, one of the things I like about living in China is our lifestyle here. If I lived in America I would drive a car everywhere and use packaged foods and buy everything at the supermarket, and it would be very convenient but I wouldn't like it as well. I am grateful for some of the things that bring such inconvenience, but some days I admit – I wish it were all a little easier!

Friday, July 22, 2016

Nadia Charlotte - 6 Months Old

Nadia reaches up to grab my face with two chubby hands, drawing me close. I kiss her cheeks and little dimpled chin and she opens her mouth wide to eat my face. I pretend to eat her face too; she giggles and covers me with drool. This face eating ritual, sometimes known as kissing, is one she can really understand. We continue this face eating play until the ceiling fan inevitably claims her attention.

We peer together into the bedroom mirror.  Nadia's head whips around trying to keep up with all there is to see:  Mirror mama, mirror baby, MIRROR FAN! Mirror mama, real mama, mirror fan, mirror baby, real baby, REAL FAN! Fan, fan, fan. It's hard to compete with entertainment like that.
Can't. Stop. Watching. Fan.
In addition to fan-watching, Nadia enjoys rolling around on the floor and chewing on her toys. She isn't sitting yet, but she can roll halfway across the floor. She enjoys some quiet time with mama but gets bored if her sisters are gone for long. She is used to noise and chaos. The sisters climb on her and wave toys in her face, laughing and talking loudly and slightly endangering her, and for the most part Nadia loves it. She beams whenever her sisters come home, and she puts up with a lot of roughhousing.

Flying in the air with daddy is one activity sure to bring smiles and laughter. Nadia also likes grabbing daddy's beard and examining his glasses, but one day she succeeded in pulling off his glasses.  She stared and stared at the strange face before her then started wailing in fear.  Good thing Kevin never wears contacts.

Nadia has just gotten over her sixth sickness in six months. It's hard being the third baby. This past time she had a few days of fever then appeared to be better, but the fever returned the next week. After a trip to the local hospital and starting some antibiotics, she is finally doing better. She didn't seem too unhappy when sick (except for wanting to be carried around constantly for the last two weeks), but she is so much happier now that she's feeling good!

Sleep is still not going well. Nadia wakes up at least every 2 hours. I don't like to do cry-it-out with young babies, but I had been really working on getting her to fall asleep in her crib with minimal help. We were starting to make some progress and had a couple of decent nights before she got sick and then sick again and that all went out the window. It doesn't seem to bother her too much, but mama misses sleep cycles. She is still taking three naps a day – a longer early afternoon nap and 45 minute morning and late afternoon ones.

Now that Nadia is six months old I guess we'll need to start solids – somehow the thought isn't quite so exciting after the first baby. Life before solids is so much easier, but after our vaccination trip next week I guess we'll have to take the plunge.
Just hanging out, playing with my toes.
At the moment Nadia is nursing...some number of times during the day. I know she can go longer than she used to, but I really don't keep track. Her distracted phase came a little late, and sometimes she still has trouble focusing if more interesting things are going on, or if she hasn't watched the fan in a while. She is also getting in a good deal of night nursing, what with all those wake ups and no other distractions.

I still can't believe Nadia is six months old already. I realized I've been thinking of her as four months old for the past two months. She is still pretty roly-poly with big chubby legs and delightfully full cheeks, but she has definitely lengthened out in the last couple of months. I recently found the videos from Nadia's first days (still on the camera), the first one taken one minute after she was born. It's hard to realize that tiny, scrunchy little baby has grown so quickly. Here's to hoping the next six months hold a lot less sickness and just as much cuteness!

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

American in China

A serious patriotic post is beyond me. My thoughts about the United States are too complicated to even try to express. I imagine living in a foreign country for nearly a third of my life (woah!) has something to do with that. Even saying “United States” sounds foreign when we are so used to saying “America” for the benefit of our students. (Sorry Canada.) But if my sense of patriotism is confused, who knows what will become of my children, who have only spent various scraps of time in their passport country.

On Sunday we celebrated 4th of July with a standard 4th of July picnic. It was standard in that it was a picnic and a potluck, but otherwise it veered pretty quickly from tradition. The picnic was attended by other Americans well as Australians, South Africans, and Singaporeans. The annual Yinchuan 4th of July picnic always has quite an international population, which is one of the things I find enjoyable and amusing: The Norwegians grilling their salmon, the Australian/Chinese baby wearing an Old Navy 4th of July shirt, the Singaporeans bringing the only patriotic looking desert. For our part Nadia was appropriately decked out - even her diaper was blue and white stars! - and I made chocolate chip cookies...and the traditional 4th of July tofu.

Thanks to Facebook's “memories,” I have been noticing a trend of some interesting reflections surrounding patriotism and life in a foreign country. For example, four years ago we celebrated 4th of July in America: me in my blue Thai shirt, Kevin in his red Cambodia shirt, and Juliana in her red, white, and blue China outfit.

Two years ago when we also spent the 4th in China, I showed Juliana some patriotic video renditions of America the Beautiful. She spent the rest of the day singing, “South AMERICA, South AMERICA” and could not be persuaded otherwise.

Last year Juliana tried to convince me that every day they raised the American flag at her Kindergarten (“Red! With little yellow stars!”).

A few weeks ago I decided perhaps I should teach the girls the pledge of allegiance, seeing as they weren't going to learn it anywhere else. We looked at the flag and talked about the meaning, then I had them repeat the pledge after me. Juliana repeated, “One nation, under guns...” She had no idea of the dreadful irony, just one day after the Orlando shooting.

So you might say we are a bit confused about our relationship with America. But never fear, I am keeping the love of chocolate chip cookies alive.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

My China Dream Home

Our apartment building
Juliana goes through these spells of nostalgia. Thoughts of the carefree life of the long ago four year old can bring her to tears. She especially misses our old apartment, where we lived when she was 1-3 years old. One day after telling her once again that no, we couldn't go back to visit because someone we don't know lived there now, I decided to show her some pictures of the old apartment.

The first picture she saw was this one, and what do you think she said?
"Oh, I miss our old bathroom! It was such a pretty bathroom!"

I had to laugh, wondering what exactly she missed. Was it the mold? The broken tiles? The rusty water pipes lining all the walls? The leaky pipes and broken toilet? Or perhaps the perfume of sewer gasses that was particularly pungent in warm weather.

As teachers, the school provides furnished housing, but as language students we had to find our own. Pickings were rather slim, and all we had to go by were pictures from another city. We chose the smaller, older, cheaper apartment partly for the price ($120/month) and partly because it was furnished. The only furniture we owned was a crib, and the thought of furnishing a whole apartment sounded daunting and expensive.
Living/dining room.  Does this count as "open concept"?
You could say our apartment had some special features.  One of the windows broke and since the landlord didn't want to repair it, we fixed it ourselves - with thick plastic, tape, and chopsticks. [We realized in the US this would be considered super trashy, but in China our American friends congratulated us on our resourceful fix].  The laundry porch was filled halfway to the ceiling with random things the landlord left behind.  If you sat in one particular spot on the couch, you could smell cigarette smoke from an unknown source. The kitchen was so small that the fridge was in the living room, as was the folding table and chairs which served as the dining area. 
I bought some green fabric to cover up the big gas tank and rickety counter frame.
And the kitchen itself was the most special part of all. The "counter" was actually layers of boards propped up on a rickety frame/old broom handle. The one burner stove was in its own little metal alcove built onto the window. You had to bend out the window and down into the alcove to cook. In winter, the burner sat on a bed of moldy ice; in summer, rain dripped down through the crevices. Every winter, the kitchen windows froze over from the inside. 
When we arrived the stove alcove was covered in newspaper.  That seems like a good idea, right?
And then there was the roach infestation. I still shiver thinking about opening the cabinet to see dozens of roaches scurry away. And every spring we would lose water for a couple of months. The water would be on for an hour at meal times and sometimes for a couple of hours at night. We planned laundry, baths, and toilet flushing accordingly.
Juliana's room was definitely the prettiest.  Perhaps that's why she has such fond memories. :)
It would be hard to go back to that apartment, with its particle board furniture. And yet, I really liked that home. It was there that Juliana took her first steps and finally (finally) slept through the night. It was there our Chinese language abilities progressed from pathetic to passable. I spent many all too memorable hours throwing up and awaiting the arrival of Adalyn.
Ice patterns inside
It was in that apartment I learned that there is always beauty even in the ugliness. Admittedly, I never found a purpose for the roaches, nasty little abominable creatures. But the thin windows and inadequate heating allowed for intricate ice patterns on the windows and cozy evenings doing homework next to the radiator. The small space meant that Juliana could keep me in sight no matter where I was. The climb to the sixth floor meant light and breeze and unobstructed mountain views.

I once planned to be an architect, and then -when I learned how much math that would entail- an interior decorator. I still get hooked on HGTV in America. I particularly enjoy the shows like Fixer Upper or Property Brothers, where they take a really ugly old house and transform it into something new. I think there is something in us that craves beauty and restoration.

I always dreamed of having a house like that - beautiful, spacious, and mold free. A place where everything matched. Instead most of my homes have been more similar to the “before” version than the after. Even the apartment we have now, a very nice roach free three bedroom apartment - a huge step up from the last one - is hardly an American dream home.

Perhaps one day I will have a pretty home with more than one bathroom, hot water in the sinks, and no downstairs neighbors to worry about. Ooh, and a dishwasher.  I think a dishwasher would be veeery pretty. But until then, I will keep enjoying our home for what it is – home. Perhaps one day I will restore and redecorate and transform, but for today I will overlook the ugly and focus on the beautiful all around.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Tips for Air Travel: Pregnancy through Preschool

As we waited in the security line, 2 hours into our 33 hours of travel, Juliana chatted with the family next to us. “We're flying to China! We live there! We're going to fly on THREE airplanes!”

The mother gave me an incredulous look. “Is that true?? I've been stressing about traveling with two kids across the country! How do you do it?”

I'm not a travel expert, but I do have an awful lot of experience flying with little kids. I stopped keeping track of Juliana's flights once she hit 50-something several years ago. Here are my tips for making travel (especially the ridiculous 24+hr variety) manageable.

Flying while Pregnant
...Don't do it.

But in case you, like me, try to fit multiple international trips into each pregnancy, here's what I suggest.
  • Stay hydrated. Bring lots of snacks
  • If still dealing with nausea, snack often, keep peppermints within reach, stock up on the air sickness bags, and may God have mercy upon you. You might still end up in the family bathroom puking in a trashcan while your child sympathetically yells, “Gross! Gross!” But most likely you'll survive.
  • In the later trimesters, wear compression socks and move around often. It's not like you'll be sleeping anyway.
  • Find out the latest date on which your practitioner recommends traveling and plan your trip for that exact day. Or earlier, if you like to take the fun out of things.
  • Check individual airline requirements and restrictions for traveling while pregnant. Some recommend a note from your doctor or don't allow travel after a certain point. Having a letter stating your due date and current health is always a good idea.
  • Don't read any stories about babies being born on airplanes. You don't need that stress.

Flying with Babies
….It's actually not so bad.
  • Bring extra clothes for everyone involved.
  • Before you get on the flight, try to make sure people have a good view of the cute happy baby so they can keep that visual in mind later when baby is not quite so happy.
  • Consider whether a stroller or carrier (or both) will be most convenient for your travel. You can pile all your bags in a stroller and have a place to set baby down, but it's a pain in security and can get beat-up, even if gate-checked. A carrier means more weight for you to carry, but it's small and can be easier to deal with. Sometimes you won't even have to take it off at security, depending on how lenient the security officer is.
  • For a small baby on a long flight, request a bassinet. It's handy for diaper changes and a place to set baby while you eat, and if you're lucky baby might even sleep in there! A bassinet also means you get bulkhead seating.
  • A lightweight scarf works great for discreet nursing in close quarters. Less cumbersome than a nursing cover and doesn't shout “Hey everyone, check out my giant drape! I'm nursing!” but can provide some cover up. Baby can't pull it down, since it's around your neck. If baby hates being covered, like most babies, just pile it loosely on top of baby leaving the face clear.
  • A button-up shirt (only buttoned at the top) over a pull-down tank top allows for great coverage even without anything else.
  • If baby has started eating solids, make sure you bring what you need – including a bib and baby spoon. Once you hit finger foods: Cheerios. 24 hours worth of Cheerios.

Flying with Toddlers
…bless your heart.
  • The generally accepted hardest age for travel is around 9 months – 2 years, when your baby/toddler is mobile and not old enough to be entertained long. Accept that it's just going to be hard, but that it will get progressively easier with lengthening attention span.
  • Let your toddler be active whenever possible. Some airports have kid play areas where your child can play and older baby can crawl on less-dirty surfaces. Walk your toddler up and down the airplane aisles. Let him stand on the seat and look around.
  • Bring lots of snacks. One day of eating a continual stream of goldfish or your equivalent nutritionally devoid entertaining food is not going to hurt your child, and snacks can ward off some of those mid-flight meltdowns.
  • Meltdowns will happen. It's pretty much unavoidable. Your toddler is overtired and stressed and everything is weird, so try to have extra patience and do what you need to do. Sure, you might not normally bribe your way out with 500 goldfish, but these are not the usual circumstances.
  • Don't entertain until you actually need to. If your toddler is happy examining the safety card or looking out the window and calling, “Airplane! Airplane!” 200 times, great. Let this continue for as long as possible. Look through the magazines, talk about the airplane slides, play with the window shade.
  • Games of “hide the toy,” finger games, songs with actions, and tickle games can all be played in a small space.
  • Bring extra clothes for everyone involved.
  • If potty training, or recently potty training, put on a pull-up. You really don't want to go through your back up clothes with 20 hours left of travel.
  • Put some little kid movies or games on your phone or tablet. Toddlers may not be interested in the movies on the airplane, or they may have trouble seeing the screen.
  • If you are traveling with your spouse and the plane has rows of three, choose an aisle and window seat toward the back of the plane. That middle seat will be the last to fill up, so you might have an empty seat, especially helpful with a 23 month old lap child. If it does get filled, nobody in the history of travel has ever minded switching out of a middle seat (also worth trying in a row of four when you have three paid seats).

Flying with a Preschooler
One word: Movies
  • Congratulations, you have entered the golden age of movies. This is a big reason why Juliana (5) likes travel so much – getting to watch as many movies as she wants is one of life's great rewards. And again, one day of watching 4 movies in a row is not going to rot anyone's brain.
  • Bring extra clothes for everyone involved. Really you should just do this whenever you travel. People throw up. Luggage gets lost. Someone spills an entire cup of coke on your pants. Make the space.
  • Bring kid headphones. They are bulky and take up space, but the airplane ones often won't stay on, and my kids hate earbuds.
  • Bring snacks. Your kid might love or hate the airplane food and you never know until that particular moment. Something known and loved (aka peanut butter sandwiches) can be a lifesaver.
  • Two toys in the hand are worth 10 in the bag. We always pack extra activities and then end up using the two things that are in the diaper bag because they are reachable.
  • Print out coloring pages ahead of time. Just search for “absolutely anything + coloring page” and you can find all sorts of custom things your child will enjoy. Put them in a folder and they can also be easily shared among siblings.
  • Consider if your family will be split up between multiple rows and pack accordingly. Passing snacks and toys back and forth over seats gets tiring.
For further musings on travel with children, check out "The Wonderful Terrible Adventure"

Linking up with Velvet Ashes: Travel

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

What I Would Say to You

Dear Mama Friends,

This is what I would like to say to you, and perhaps you need to hear it. It's what I would like someone to say to me, although it's easier to say than to believe.

You are not a terrible person. I know sometimes it seems like children bring out the absolute worst in you – all the frustration and anger and selfishness. But you are actually the same person you used to be; it's just harder now to kid yourself about how awesomely kind and loving you are. Think about how much patience practice you have gotten over the years. Even if your patience is still not enough to last the 24 hours a day that you need it, you are more patient now than ever before.

You are not doing it wrong. There is that baby who sleeps all night from 2 weeks old. There is that toddler who potty trains in 2 hours. There is that child who teaches herself to read at 2 years. That is not your child. That is not most people's child. It's completely normal for babies to wake up during the night, and to start waking up again once they've stopped. Yours is not the only toddler to poop anywhere but the potty. And it's supper frustrating. But it's not because you have missed the Perfect Window or the Vital Step or the One True Way. It's because every child is different and life is just messy (literally) and much more complex than we'd like it to be. It's not you.

You remember the moments when you snapped and acted like a sleep deprived two year old. And your kids might too. (Let's be honest, they'll grow up and blame you for everything no matter what. That's what therapy is for.) Those are such big moments right now, moments that seem to define everything. But in ten or twenty years your kids will mostly remember sandwich triangles and silly songs at bedtime and all the little moments colored by security, trust, and someone there who cared.

You are not failing. It sure looks like it sometimes. You cannot possibly stay on top the mess. You don't cook enough vegetables. You did not create magical memories for the first or hundredth or last day of school. Some days (years?) your children will invariably act horrible and you will be certain you are raising them to be terrors. They don't sleep. They won't focus on school. They won't calm down for two blessed seconds. They are far from perfect, and you are far from perfect, but you are far from a failure. You battle frustration and lack of accomplishment and invisible progress every single day and what do you do? You get back up again the next day (or every few hours all night long) and start it all over again! Day after day after day after year. If that's not success, I don't know what is.

Those dark circles are beautiful. They tell of so many nights of self denial and caring for others. That saggy stomach sheltered a tiny human being or three or four. Those stretch marks show how you literally stretched yourself to the limit for the sake of new life. Your hair is turning gray before your eyes – because even your hair has worked so hard at this business of life. Your whole body is showing how you have lived and how you have given. All those imperfections whisper of the tears and losses and anger and disappointment that you don't like to let show; they give away how hard this has been. They show how strong you are. The mirror might show something that seems worse than before, but you are a wonder.

What you are doing matters. All those menial, meaningless loads of laundry and trips to the potty and time outs and cleaning up markers off the floor and washing snotty noses and helping focus on another math problem and quieting the screaming and making another dinner. You are providing your children with food and clothes and keeping them safe and helping them to learn some kindness and responsibility and math, and where would they be without that? Human children are pretty helpless. They need you. They follow you around everywhere you go talking incessantly because they want to be with you.

What you are doing matters. In itself, by itself, this is incredible spiritual work. You are literally feeding and clothing the least of these. You are washing feet and showing the extent of your love. You put others' needs before your own day and night. You hear your baby cry, and you answer him. You lift him out of darkness and draw him into your arms, giving comfort. You offer your physical body as a sacrifice.

You are weary and discouraged and wonder if you will ever again do something that feels meaningful, something that you can finish. But this right here, this is IT. This is life. You were made for this life, for this every day, and you are doing it so well. Let us raise our coffee mugs together in solidarity. We are doing this. Carry on.


Friday, April 15, 2016

It's All the Hardest

I'm not gonna lie. Three kids is more work than two. Two kids is more work than one. And one kid is definitely more work than none. The laundry and the crying seem to multiply with each one added. The times when you only have one or two kids to deal with feel like a break. There are just so many people constantly demanding your time and energy and attention.

Nevertheless, after Nadia was born I just kept thinking, “I'm so glad she's not the first. This is so much easier.” Different people vary in their opinions of which transition is the hardest, probably depending on their particular children and circumstances at the time. For me, the first was definitely the hardest.

Nobody can really prepare you for what that transition will be like. Suddenly your moments are not your own. Your sleeping and waking and eating are dictated by another person. Such a small person who causes such big upheaval.

It's hard because the demands are so constant. Day and night, you never really get to clock out. It took a long time before I felt like there even was day and night as I had understood it before. You never before realized how much babies just want to be held. Like all the hours after 5pm. There are a lot of times when your options are hold (or wear) baby, or listen to baby cry inconsolably, which isn't so good for baby or the neighbors or mama's sanity. Any moments away from baby are planned around how long she will last until needing to nurse again.

And oh my goodness, the sleep! Never before had my life and thoughts so revolved around sleep, and I was getting so little of it. I spent frustrating hours every day trying to get Juliana to sleep. I would go to sleep at night stressed, thinking, “If I go to sleep quickly, maybe I can get in 2 hours before she wakes up!” I never knew if she would sleep for 3 hours or be awake in 10 minutes. Now Juliana was certainly a special child when it came to sleep. I don't know hardly any babies who slept quite as badly as she did. But even with a “normal” baby, sleep is highly disrupted, likely for many months. Just when you think you've really hit a groove, there's a growth spurt or sleep regression or dropping a nap or teething or sickness or just your typical Tuesday and suddenly everything is up in the air again.

It's hard because it's so unpredictable. Eventually babies do settle into a routine, and that helps. Except that the routine changes a lot. The whole first year is constant change, with each month different than the last. But even the days are unpredictable. One day baby will take an awesome nap and play contentedly for a really long time while you accomplish everything (or at least something) on your list. You have finally figured it out! The next day baby is fussy and wants to nurse or be held and sleeps fitfully and you wonder what in the world went wrong. (Nothing. It's just that it's Tuesday.)

Actually, I'm certain babies have legitimate reasons for the contentment and the fussiness, just like some days we feel so much better than other days. But you can drive yourself crazy trying to figure out the reason. (When in doubt, blame teething. It lasts foooorever.) I spent a lot of energy and frustration trying to figure out why Juliana wouldn't sleep. I read so much about baby sleep and tried so many things and felt more and more frustrated. I was certain that if I found just the right combination she would sleep like all the other babies. It did eventually happen, although technically by that point she wasn't a baby anymore.

I wish I had stopped trying to figure it out. I still would have tried different things because we really needed more sleep, but I wouldn't have agonized over it. I wouldn't have blamed myself for her bad sleeping. I would have realized there is no One True Way. I still would have been exhausted, but I wouldn't have been so frustrated and so hard on myself. You know what, I did things pretty much the same way the second time with vastly different results. Some kids sleep better than others.

It's hard because of all the comparison. Why does someone else's baby sleep so much better than yours? Why do they sit so contentedly in their little seat for longer than 3 minutes? Why do they cry less? Because they are a different baby. Maybe they have an “easy” baby and yours is more “high needs.” Maybe they are doing things differently from you, and maybe some of those things help, but babies are just different. And some of those high needs babies turn into really driven, talented people who are going to change the world.

The bottom line is parenting is hard just because it's hard. It's not that you're doing it wrong – that's just the way it is. It's hard with the first and the second and the third.  In some ways, it only gets harder.  But it also gets easier because you expect it to be hard. You know every baby is different. You learn to laugh at those ridiculous Expert ideas that will never work in real life. You become your own kind of expert while also admitting you really have no idea what you are doing. You realize it goes by so quickly. So you take a deep breath and maybe count to ten, and then you jump back in.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Three GIRLS!

When I told our ayi I was pregnant, her first question was, "Do you want it?" I said I did, then I told her it was a girl.
"Do you want it?" She asked again. When I assured her we did, she looked happy.

At one time I would have been offended by such a line of questioning, but now I realize it was just the culturally logical inquiry. Wanting three children and wanting three GIRLS was pretty far outside the norm. Besides, she seemed relieved to find out I did indeed want this one.

I love having three girls in China. I like being able to tell neighbors and strangers that no, this one is also a girl (since it is polite to assume the baby is a boy), and finding out what their response will be.

Most of them are reassuring. "Girls are good." it's kind of them to be reassuring and sad that they feel like they must be.  The other day when a granny heard about all my girls she looked happy. "That's how it is in my family. There are two girls." I could tell her I thought that was very good, and I think she believed me.

Some are disbelieving, wanting to know the American attitude toward girls. I tell them we really do think that girls and boys are the same and both are good.

Of course, in America we still believe that everyone is looking for the perfect boy-girl family. I don't know a single family with all girls who hasn't gotten comments to the effect that surely they must want a boy, and the same is true for all boy families. For some reason we have the idea that we couldn't possibly be content with just one gender.

Personally I'm very happy to have all girls. I was hoping for a girl at some point, but after that I really didn't have a strong desire one way or the other, and neither did Kevin. By this pregnancy, I was rather hoping for another girl. We already have all the clothes, sharing a room won't be an issue, and we'll already be dealing with all the preteen mean girl drama anyway.

While I was pregnant, our ayi asked how my parents and in laws felt about all girls.
"They are happy," I said. "It doesn't matter to them. They are also happy with girls."
"Oh, that's very good," She said. "In China, your in laws probably wouldn't speak to you any more if you only had girls."

Attitudes are changing in China, especially in the cities. Even so, it was only a few years ago that our (mostly rural) female students were telling stories of being unwanted, or even of their families trying to get rid of them.  And even so, everyone wishes you will have a boy.  But hopefully we will continue to see more value placed on daughters, one (or three!) girl at a time.