Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Benefits of Parenting in China

At a restaurant recently when the girls climbed into the neighboring booth to play games on this student's phone.
Last month we were at a restaurant celebrating Juliana's birthday with friends. The adults were sitting at one table while the kids (four 3-6 year olds) were sitting at another table. After a while their coloring and giggling and eating pizza turned to crawling under the table playing hide and seek. The few others in the restaurant looked on indulgently, smiling when the kids encroached on their personal space (which they probably don't realize is a thing).

We sat back watching and occasionally reigning in when it got a bit out of control, talking about how great it was to raise kids in China. “Can you imagine doing this in America or Norway? No way your kids could run around a restaurant. It's so much more stressful going out with kids!”

There are certainly hard parts about raising kids in China, which I'll probably touch on later, but there are some real advantages too. China is such a kid-friendly culture. For example...

  • You don't have to keep an eye on your kids every minute when they are outside at the park or in the neighborhood. In fact, I've seen a number of unattended 5-6 year olds playing near our home. There is much more of a communal feel – there are always aunties and grandmas around to keep an eye on things, and everyone is more or less familiar with their (hundreds and hundreds of) neighbors.
  • In general, I feel like my kids are honestly safer in China. There are no practice lock-downs at school. There also isn't such a culture of fear here - people just don't seem to worry about sunscreen or the wrong kind of bed killing their child.
  • Restaurants are naturally noisy environments, so if your kids are making noise nobody cares. If they run off and play with the owners' kid or explore behind the counter, it's just to be expected. If they get overly friendly with the people at the next table, checking out their food, they will probably get a lot of smiles and possibly candy. If the restaurant is slow, the waitress might offer to hold your baby while you eat (so long as you don't mind her being shown off to everyone in the restaurant).
  • If your child starts throwing the standard supermarket fit, instead of casting disapproving looks, strangers are more likely to do whatever they can to cheer up the poor child. (Any disapproving looks would be from your failure to give the darling whatever they want).
  • Potty training is a lot easier when it's totally acceptable to squat your toddler by the nearest tree.
  • When people realize we have three kids, they ALL say, “! 好辛苦!” (“Wow, so hard!”) They are shocked that you raise children without help from grandparents. People are very good about recognizing that kids are hard and you are pretty amazing to be doing this all on your own. :)
  • There are a lot of fun things for kids to do. For $1.50 you can spend hours in a bounce castle at the nearby park. There are indoor and outdoor play areas (though very few free playgrounds). Our city has a free kid-friendly science museum, a kiddie beach, and a park with a carousel, train, and the standard tank ride.
  • Your kids can almost always find playmates outside. It helps to have hundreds of neighbors in a few acre radius. Grandparents spend a lot of time outside with their little toddlers, and school children congregate outside at the end of the day.
  • The in-home childcare rate is around $3-4/hour.
  • I hardly ever take all the kids to the supermarket. In fact, I only go to the supermarket about once a month, since most essentials can be gotten from small shops nearby. We even have old-fashioned fresh milk delivery two days a week!
  • Your kids have visited multiple countries, taken hundreds of flights, napped on the back of an elephant...all before starting school.
  • Bouncing around in a little electric cart or sitting on the back of a bike is much more interesting than riding in a car. You can see the scenery much more clearly and really enjoy those fun speed bumps.
  • One of the official duties of grandparents (students, friends, random strangers...) is to pass out candy to any child around.
  • You often refer to the world map when talking about where various friends live.
  • You realized that people around the world have very different perspectives on parenting.  Here, everyone sleeps with their babies/children and putting your baby in another room sounds horrifying.  They also rarely use diapers, would never give a baby cold (room temperature) water, and don't put kids to bed until late at night.  People do things differently, and shockingly, it all works out.  So perhaps there is more than one right way after all.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

All It Contains

My life seems smaller these days, and in some ways it is. There are days when I don't leave the confines of this apartment. I rarely venture outside this two mile radius, because who has time for that (but then life in China was meant to be lived locally). “I don't teach” - I say this often and it's not actually true, but it's true that I have no real job that involves dressing up and having a title and getting a paycheck.

We have students over so much less often than in our pre-children days. I rarely go out after bedtime. I read a lot, holding a baby in the dark, but it has taken me over 9 months to get through the last season of Gilmore Girls.

I have shared my body, through pregnancy or nursing, for 6.5 of the past 7 years. I sleep in two hour segments, if I'm lucky. I never finish anything before having to start it over again. I must remind myself some days I am in fact, a separate entity, a person in my own right.

But actually my life is not smaller; it has just shifted. My days are arguably fuller than ever before. I wash and chop and cook and puree and freeze vegetables. I feed them to baby and then clean up her and her tray and the table and floor and sometimes myself. I nurse. I cook dinner for the sake of my family and bake brownies for the sake of myself.

I don't have a salaried position, but I teach how to read the consonant blends and how to solve word problems. I plan simple lessons that will keep the attention of small, restless bodies.

I do a dozen loads of laundry a week. I puzzle over grease stains and spinach spit up and coal dust and ink. I memorize the view from my laundry porch as I plan how to fit all the clothes that need to dry, and I curse silently over 20 mismatched, inside-out socks. I rotate clothes already outgrown since last month and prepare for a new season of jackets and gloves. I search the internet for a bigger size of winter boots and pants without holes in the knee.

I calm a million tantrums and hand out ice for a million hurts, real and imagined. I wipe and dress and brush and redress. I find toys and put away toys and get down toys and secretly throw away toys. I clean and I clean and I clean and wonder how it can still be so messy.

I talk to students in between doling out bites of food and answering insistent questions. I invite students to take part in the noisy chaos of our home. They marvel at the way we play with our children and wonder at this strange idea of a mother who doesn't go to work. I send off the kids to talk with students about deeper things, some brief focused time in between nap time and nursing and making dinner.

My brain seems to work slower these days - something about sleep deprivation and missing brain cells. And yet it is constantly planning for the day, heading off the next conflict, scanning the floor for choking hazards, calculating the days since the last bath, problem solving the latest discipline issue, and imagining all the possible ways my children could die (fall down stairs, run in front of car, choke on candy, fall on head...).

I stop to read a book. I kiss those chubby cheeks, still so soft from sleep. I watch another performance. I admire a bristle-block building. I make up a knock-knock joke. I examine a tooth that is just a bit looser than this morning. I answer questions about life and death and war and butterflies and My Little Ponies. I watch and wait for the giggles, the shining eyes, the silly faces, the outreached arms.

My life is smaller, compared to the outside world, compared to the scope of what it used to encompass. But my life is deeper, in this small space that is filled to bursting. It bursts through the 8 or 10 or 12 working hours and spills onto all 24. It floods the weekends and holidays. It fills my body and my mind and my heart. This house encompasses whole worlds.

This is my pasture, and I struggle to rest within its boundaries. This is my sphere of influence, and I bend beneath the holy weight of all that means, the depth of impact I will have on these lives so closely tied to my own. I join in the ancient rhythm of feeding and clothing and caring for those who cannot care for themselves.

One day, gradually, the space of my life will expand again, no longer measured by hours between nursing, by nap times and loads of laundry. Perhaps I will put on professional clothes and stand at the front of a class. Maybe I will spend full days away from my children, or they will spend full days away from me. Perhaps I will send them off to college, or I will send myself off to get another masters. The world is still open, full of possibilities.

But for now I will look inward. This is a season, and in this season I will live small. But I will live deeply.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Nine Months of Nadia

Nadia has now reached the point where she has been alive on the outside longer than on the inside. Actually, since she was born early she already passed that point, but close enough. I was reading a blog I wrote about Juliana at 9 months old and it was interesting to see where they are both at. No surprise – Juliana was talking more and more enthusiastic about every single thing in life. What was a surprise was to realize that Juliana, my classically bad sleeper, was actually sleeping much better than Nadia at this point. It was a very depressing realization.
Hey mirror friend!
 Juliana and Adalyn were such diametrically opposed personalities, I'm still not quite sure where Nadia fits. I think she is somewhere in the middle. She is generally pretty quiet; just in the last couple of weeks she has started babbling “ba-ba-ba.” Of course she has so much noise and constant activity around her, that's not too surprising.  She is usually happy and ready to play. 
Juliana was much more focused on communication than on movement. Adalyn was pretty content to hang out and observe (until she learned to climb). Nadia likes to watch her sisters play, but she is happiest when she can be involved. She likes to play Little People or play food or My Little Ponies – they all make excellent chew toys.
Just one of the girls
In the past couple of weeks she has started crawling everywhere and pulling herself up. Both of these activities have greatly increased her enjoyment in life. She can now bang cabinet doors, search out pieces of paper to eat, chew on shoes, pull things down from pantry shelves, and get into all of her sister's toys.
Doing the splits
She loves to eat and has eaten anything we have offered and some things we haven't (yummy floor crumbs). I'm still making a lot of purees for her, but she also likes scrambled eggs and some pieces of the food we eat. She likes to lap water out of a cup as well. She nurses frequently but has a hard time focusing during the day – there are always so many interesting things going on! She still nurses very frequently throughout the night though.
Dearest mama, I am so distressed to cause you such terrible nights. I will be sure to sleep better from now on.
About the night...yes, it's pretty terrible. Honestly the good nights are the ones when she sleeps for 2 hours at a time. Occasionally she will sleep for 2.5 hours, but I can't remember when she last slept longer than that. Months ago. A lot of nights she wakes up every hour or two, and some nights she struggles to settle down for half of the night. I don't know what her deal is. At some point we'll try something else, but since my previous sleep improvement attempts have come to naught, I'm not feeling very motivated.
Pick me up, or I will eat you up!
She is definitely going through an attached to mama phase. That is, she is always been attached to mama, as most babies are. I realized recently she had never actually had a bottle, as she has never been away from me for more than about three hours, day or night. But lately she is extra happy to see me and sad when I callously abandon her. If I come back and don't immediately come show her how much I missed her, she is heartbroken.
She likes to play peek-a-boo and smiles when she hears her name. She has discovered the joys of banging toys on the tile floor and knocking down block towers. She enjoys tickles, going upside down, and looking in the mirror.
Me as a baby
I'm not sure who she looks like. My mom says she looks like I did as a baby. She looks similar to Juliana, although I noted that Juliana was still wearing some 3-6 month clothes while Nadia has mostly moved on to 12 month size. Her bright blue eyes and blond hair draw a lot comments of “好心疼!” (More or less “she makes your heart ache!”). She is a very sweet baby and those chubby cheeks get many kisses a day.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Autumn Pause

Nadia is taking a rare long nap, the 2 hour kind that only happen when I am planning to go somewhere. I need to buy some more bread for lunch, to support our daily PB&J habit. Our ayi is at our home this morning, so I decide to just take the girls. After a few rounds of “put your socks on or else,” we head down the stairs.

The sky is gray – not “factory town” gray but “blustery autumn” gray. Despite the absence of any visible sun, the girls don pink Hello Kitty and racer flame sunglasses. We have good sandwich bread available at our nearby campus shop, so the girls climb on scooters and balance bikes to ride through campus.

People watch us everywhere we go, something I almost forget about it has become so normal. Students kindly dodge out of the way of swerving children with cries of “How cute! The little foreign dolls!” When we walk in the store the shop ladies and shopping students all smile indulgently. They no longer blink when we pile 5 packages of bread onto the counter, (about the equivalent of one loaf). They already know the crazy foreigners apparently live on bread alone.

We need to get back home, but the girls want to stop in the little copse of trees to find some leaves. I often hurry them along, driven by my own relentless internal clock, but today we pause. Maybe it is the crispness in the wind, or the autumn sky, or the sight of yellowing leaves, but I want to stop and soak in this moment when I am actually enjoying life instead of slogging through it.

We delight in yellow leaves in perfect heart shape and shudder at strange wiggly mushrooms. The girls fill the scooter basket with leaves and dandelions. Just as the wind blows the sun clear in the sky we walk and scooter and bike back home.

Nadia has just woken up from her nap and greets us with sleepy eyes. Adalyn grabs her hands and makes silly faces. Juliana finds a play milk bottle for the flowers and sits down to make leaf rubbings. I settle in to nurse Nadia. For this moment, no one is whining or screaming. The world pauses to appreciate the first tastes of Autumn.

On Not Sleeping and Keeping the Night Watch

 I heard once that babies could sleep through the night from a few months old, and before I had babies I thought that meant babies did sleep through the night from a few months old. I also was under the impression that once babies started sleeping obviously they kept sleeping, and that surely no preschooler/kindergartener/elementary school child would still have trouble waking up during the night.

Let us pause to laugh at my naivety.

Enter Juliana. That child did not sleep. It was a struggle to get her to sleep every single time. She popped awake at the slightest provocation (like if you breathed too hard). She woke up a ridiculous number of times a night and thought 3am was a great time for a party. She wouldn't nap unless we held her. For like, forever. She first slept through the night at a year old, and that was very short lived. Soon we once again up with her for an hour or two every night. Around 18 months she finally started sleeping consistently.

Adalyn was our sleeper. I remember setting her down, patting her gently for 30 seconds, and she was out. At two months old she was routinely sleeping 6-7 hours at a time. She had her regressions, but overall everything just came easier to her. Let the record show it's not just me; I really did have one good sleeper.

When Nadia was born I had pretty realistic expectations. I also felt pretty confident that I wouldn't have another sleeper as bad as Juliana. That just wouldn't be fair, and everyone knows that life is fair.

Nadia started out like your average newborn. Around 3 months she even had a brief spell of 5 hour stretches. Then that 4 month sleep regression hit and she never got over it. For most of the past 5 months, she has been waking up every 2 hours. Sometimes she'll sleep for 3 hours (not recently) often for 1 hour (recently), but there hasn't been any improvement.

It's not that we haven't tried. By 4.5 months, when the whole regression thing didn't seem to be going anywhere, I pulled out my No Cry Sleep Solution book and started going through the various ideas. Nadia kept getting sick, and that didn't help our progress, but I thought surely if we kept working at it we'd see results. We finally got in a full month of working hard on sleep...and it had only gotten worse. I have tried co-sleeping. I like the idea a lot, but practically it hasn't worked well for us right now. Nadia is restless; I sleep fitfully and wake up with a sore back.
I was barely functional and starting to lose the will to live, so at 7+ months we decided to try “cry it out.” I was adamantly, ethically opposed to CIO when Juliana was a baby. I have mellowed on most of my stances since then, but I still don't like leaving a baby to cry. I think there is a reason it feels so unnatural. But I felt like it was the right decision at the time, as what was going on obviously wasn't working.

I still nursed Nadia once a night, but the other times Kevin went in to her. I wasn't even expecting her to sleep through the night – I was just hoping to get to something more workable. But after more than two weeks, Nadia was still either waking up frequently or having a long crying spell. I thought the point of CIO was that they cry and then they start sleeping and stop crying every night. That wasn't happening. As soon as we quit, Nadia went back to waking up every two hours.

So I quit trying. I'm out of plans, and even if I had plans, I'd be too tired to implement them. Do you know how hard it is to be disciplined and think clearly at 3am when you've already been woken up 2-3 times? I have stopped expecting it to get better because it doesn't. I nurse Nadia back to sleep because that's the easiest, and not nursing her back to sleep was hard and took a long time and didn't actually help.

For now, I will be tired. Fortunately I have long since forgotten what it's like to get decent sleep so I don't quite know what I'm missing, except a fair number of brain cells. But in the tiredness I have a choice. I can either be bitter and frustrated and complain all the time (which I do sometimes), or I can accept it. I can recognize that I have survived the past five months and I'll probably continue to survive.

A friend recently brought up an idea from a book she was reading about viewing these night wakings as “calls to worship.” (If anyone else said something all spiritual like this, I would not take it well, but this friend is a mom to five little ones and has had her fair share of poor sleepers. She hasn't just been there; she is there – and that makes all the difference.) What if being up all night with your baby is actually a form of worship? A keeping of the night watch?

It certainly isn't a natural response. It's easily a drudgery to get through, bleery eyed and barely awake. It's easy to resent the sleeping household (the whole world is sleeping except me!), to resent those other people with the babies who sleep (where did they get them??). It's easy to long for this stage to be over and for Sleeping Through the Night to commence. It requires refocusing every single time. Every hour or two, all night long.

But when I stop complaining, I realize this is an invitation to communion. In the quiet of the night, this is a holy place. I may not have a lot of brain function, but I can consciously turn my heart toward God. I can choose to worship, to meditate, to offer a sacrifice of praise. In the midst of physical exhaustion, I can believe that I will find rest for my soul. There remains a rest that only he can give. If I choose to receive it -- There is grace for the night, joy in the morning, and strength for the day.

Related Posts
They say the church fathers gave us fixed-hour prayer, but now I know the church mothers marked sacred time long before these hours had names like lauds, sext, vespers, compline, matins, and the office of the night watch. Mamas have been keeping watch for as long as God has cooed and whimpered and shrieked through a baby’s tiny lungs every hour…every two hours…or, if you’re lucky, every three.
In those hazy hours before dawn, I think about the practices of caring for a baby. How simple, yet how laborious they can be. How feeding, diapering, and comforting a newborn fill every hour of every day...I’ve been thinking about how these simple acts can be spiritual practices.
But then here it is: hiding in plain sight, an altar. I’m standing sentry and holding vigil for her. It feels like I have become the answer because I have no answers and so I am free to simply show up both during the night for the baby and even as I am now during the day. It feels like a holy act to lift one crying and cold baby up out of her darkness and hold her to my body, to still the cries of at least one soul.

Meditations for the Night Watch
Jesus Christ, Son of God,
Have mercy on me, a sinner.

Be still and know that I am God.

In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.
You will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.

Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

You will find rest for your soul.

My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.

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.