When my husband and I left for China in October 2013, we left our two biological sons at home with their grandparents. We were very intentional in preparing them for our trip and took many steps to make the 17 days apart as comfortable as possible for them. Here we are, not even two years later, like so many adoptive families that have come before us, and my husband and I are returning to China next month to bring home another precious little boy. This time, we are taking our oldest son with us, but the two “littles,” our “twins,” are staying home with their grandparents.
For the past 9 months, we have been intentional in preparing the our littles for the time apart, as well as making plans to stay present and connected while we are in China. While our biological son will benefit from these preparations, the majority of our focus is on preparing Tucker, who has been home for just 18 months. Initially, the bond between us was slow to start but grew steadily over time.
We have made many gains in this area and hope to foster strong attachment even while we are apart to bring Tyson home. For those of you who are not taking your children to China with you, my hope is that this post will help you find ways to prepare your own children, especially those who were previously adopted, as well as stay present and connected to them while you are out of the country.
Preparing Your Child(ren)
When we made the decision to start the adoption process again, Tucker had been receiving nearly all of his care from Ryan and me. Our children love the Daniel Tiger television show on PBS – and honestly, I love it, too, because they teach a lot of great social skills. In one of the shows, the parents are leaving Daniel with a babysitter and sing the phrase, “Grownups come back.” Because this was familiar language for Tucker, I began singing it to him every time I left to run an errand or whenever we left for the occasional date night to dinner and a movie. His grandparents had also watched all three of our sons in our home, and they had put Tucker to bed before; however, we were always home by the time he woke up. These small breaks from one another showed Tucker time and time again that we always came back.
When my husband and I decided to adopt again, we realized that we had never allowed Tucker to stay overnight away from us. We knew that since we would not be taking him to China with us, we would need to begin preparing him for just that. Over the past 9 months, he and his brothers have stayed at his grandparents’ houses several times overnight for 1-2 nights. Because of schedules and distance, we have not been able to plan for more than 2 consecutive nights. If your family situation allows for more consecutive nights, consider “practicing” time away from one another. Try to set up your overnights with the person or people who will be taking care of your child while you are away. This will help both parties build their relationship before your trip.
Along with preparing Tucker through overnights at grandparents’ houses, the trip to China is part of our normal conversation. We show him pictures and videos of his new little brother and share a simple script with him, which goes something like this: “Mommy, Daddy, and Noah are going to go to China to bring Tyson home. He needs a family, and we get to be his family! Liam and Tucker are staying home with Grandma and Grandpa. You will do so many fun things together, and you will be safe and loved by Grandma and Grandpa. Grownups come back! We will come home from China, and our whole family will be together – Daddy, Mommy, Noah, Liam, Tucker, and Tyson.”
We talk about our feelings – that we will miss each other and be sad to be apart but also how happy we will be to all be home together. I give Tucker opportunities to talk about how he feels and affirm those feelings. We have this conversation regularly to help prepare his heart and work through those emotions. I am a strong believer in preparing kids for change and upcoming events, and I do believe that these types of preparations will help Tucker’s heart while we are away.
Staying Present and Connected to Your Child(ren)
When we traveled to China for our first adoption, we stayed connected to our children in many different ways. Now that we will be leaving Tucker and Liam at home, we plan to add some new ideas to our list. Many of these ideas will take some time and preparation, but the benefits definitely outweigh the costs. I am confident that executing several of the following ideas will help our boys during our trip to China.
• Create a Visual Countdown – For our last adoption, I found a simple placemat that had a map of the world on it. I used permanent marker and made dots from China to Indiana (where we live). The dot on China was #17 and as the dots reached closer to the US, I counted down: #16, #15, #14….all the way to #1, which was the day our plan was landing at home. I left stickers for the boys count down our time apart. I only made one calendar last time, and their grandma quickly realized the need for two, so she made a second countdown calendar. I will definitely make two separate calendars for Liam and Tucker this time so they can each put stickers on their own calendars. There are so many other types of visual countdowns you could make. Check out Pinterest for ideas!
• Create Daily Videos – Ryan and I had so much fun making these videos for our last adoption, and I can’t wait to do it again. We are pretty scheduled people, so we knew exactly which days our children would be at home with caretakers, away at their grandparents, spending the day with cousins, going to school, etc. We made 17 videos for our children to watch each day that we were gone. You can imagine how excited we were to finally be able to say, “Today is the day we come home to see you!” on that last video. Ryan and I acted really goofy to make them laugh, and then we talked about what we did in China while they were sleeping (we had a schedule of what we would do each day). Then we would talk about their fun plans for the day. We saved the videos on a flash drive and left it for the grandparents to show each morning. Oftentimes, the kids watched the videos over and over again. I think this really helped them stay connected to us, and although it was a bit time consuming to make them, we will definitely do it again for this trip, as I saw the benefits they had on our children.
• Gifts to Open Each Day – I know, I know. Looking at that pile of gifts, you probably think we are crazy! Truth be told, we spent no more than $70 on everything. Again, I saw the benefit that the gifts had on our children, so we will most definitely do it again. I remember saying goodbye to the boys when we put them to bed. It was hard for all of us, and I knew they would be sad upon waking up, knowing that we were gone. However, they came downstairs to that huge pile of beautifully wrapped presents, and you can imagine the pep that put in their step. Sometimes the boys had gifts to open together, and other times they had one gift each. A lady was selling huge sets of Imaginext toys – a castle, pirate ship, and fire station all with several figures and accessories. There were several other toys, too, and we got them all for like $45. I grouped them into sets and wrapped them up. Then I bought the rest of the items at the Dollar Tree. I tried to be strategic with when they opened each one. Our first day gone they were given a castle with several people and accessories. Playing with these toys kept them busy all throughout our trip, and they still play with them today. On days when I knew they would be busy, they would get a new Ninja Turtle cup or some candy. The gifts gave them something to look forward to each day and helped establish a routine while we were gone. First they would watch the videos, then open gifts, have breakfast, etc. If you don’t like the idea of a pile of presents, hide gifts around your house, and leave a clue each day for your children to find one. That could be a lot of fun for our children!
• Videos of Bedtime Stories – Our children love bedtime stories, so Ryan and I also made videos of each of us reading each child a bedtime story. This gave Noah one bedtime story from his mom and one from his dad, and the same was true for Liam. We strategically chose books for each of them and read them with lots of “eye contact” and expression. The boys watched those videos over and over while we were apart.
• Daily FaceTime/Skype Sessions and Text Messages (for older children) – This is an obvious way to stay connected to your children, but it goes without saying that face-to-face sessions with our children is so important. We know our children better than anyone, and as parents, we are trained to read our children’s expressions and words. Seeing our children each day will help us understand how they are doing while we are apart. During those calls, we get to give undivided attention to our children and hear everything they want to share. These calls also allow the newly adopted child to “meet” brothers and sisters. We tried to call once a day, as that was best for our children, and usually those calls were in the morning (their time) in order to prevent any negative emotions that can come with sleepy children at bedtime. For older children who have text messaging capabilities, staying in touch by text will help them stay connected to you throughout the day, as well.
• Make a Photo Book – By nature, children are visual creatures. Although we did not make books during our last trip to China, I will definitely make them for this trip. I believe this idea will really help Tucker while we are apart. Because I have “twins” who need to be treated equally, I will end up making two books. Tucker’s photo book will have pictures of Tucker with Ryan, Tucker with me, and Tucker with both his mommy and daddy doing special things together. The same will be true for Liam’s book. His book will contain pictures of just him with us. Some ideas include eating dinner, reading books, playing outside, laughing, tickling, kissing, hugging, putting to bed, brushing teeth, watching movies, cooking, and playing games. These will be simple pictures that show our normal day-to-day life together. I strongly believe that Tucker will refer back to his photo book many times while we are away. I will also leave a blank space for a picture to take at the airport and another for when we are home together. It is so important to always emphasis coming back and being together again.
• Eat a Meal Together over FaceTime – Families that eat together stay together, right? Maybe as you plan your FaceTime calls, try to do one over mealtime. This is a normal, everyday activity that might bring some normalcy to your child’s day. The computer or iPad can even be placed at your seat at the table.
• Use the Find My Friends App – Download this app on your phone and have your children’s caretakers do the same. This will allow your children to find you on a map whenever they want to know where you are in China. Likewise, you will be able to see where your children are and bring it up during your daily FaceTime conversations. Seeing you in different parts of China can help them visualize where you are and stay connected to you while you are apart.
• Leave a Map with Details – Since adoption in China oftentimes takes place in multiple parts of the country, leave them a map with details of your plans. For example, if you are spending two days in Beijing, find a way to show that on the map and give details about what you will do there. While you are in your child’s province, show details about where that is and what you will do in that part of the country. Then, show where Guangzhou is and also provide details about events that will take place there. This can be done in many different ways. Be creative!
• Create a Journal with Pictures – While you are in China, consider writing about your adventures each day. This can be done through your blog, a private Facebook page, or in a Word Processing program like Microsoft Word. Make sure your caretaker will have access to whichever platform you use (Word documents can be emailed). This will be a great way to preserve your memories later, and they will also help your children see your adventures in pictures. If appropriate, your children can read or someone else can read your posts, as well.
• Favorite Meals – As I mentioned before, our family is pretty structured. Because we had a daily schedule for them (with plenty of flexibility within each day), we also created a meal plan for while we were away. If your children have favorite meals, consider making them ahead of time and freezing them or ask their caretakers to make those specific meals while you are away. Food can be such an easy way to stay connected to your children. Tucker loves congee, and we will definitely make sure that he has plenty to eat while we are gone. He can also be particular about food textures (e.g., struggles with apple peels – we just peel them), so we will make sure to communicate that type of information to his grandparents. Be as specific as you can about any food needs and preferences to prevent mealtime battles while you are in China. Providing plenty of foods that they love can help them feel comforted while you are away.
• Send a Letter from China – Of course I know the letter you send will not reach them until you get home, but we did this during Tucker’s adoption, and our boys loved it. Who doesn’t love to receive mail? This letter can once again reassure them that you were thinking of them while you were away and can be an opportunity for dialogue about how they felt while you were apart. FYI – we also sent Tucker a letter from his home province in China, and when he is older, we will also let him open that letter to read about the feelings we had upon spending our first week together. We plan to do the same for Tyson during this next trip to China.
• Play Games Together – If your children are old enough to play interactive games online like Word With Friends, you can continue playing those games together during your trip. This can help everyone stay present and connected to one another.
• Take Pictures of Together – Think Flat Stanley but cut out pictures of your children instead. When you go to the Great Wall of China, be sure to include your “Flat Lucy” or “Flat Regis” in the pictures. Send your children the pictures by text or email to help them see that they are always on your mind and in your heart while you are apart.
• Practice Your Airport Reunion – My son Liam and I have been practicing what we will do when we see each other again at the airport. It started out as a game, and quickly I can see the benefit of going through these motions. He will stand at one end of the house, and I will stand at the other. I will start walking toward him and say, “Where is Liam? I don’t see him yet.” Then I will exclaim, “There he is!” and I start running to him. We run to each other with open arms and embrace, giving each other lots of kisses. I tell him how much I missed him and how happy I am to be home. He loves this game so much, and I am confident that when we actually reunite at the airport, we will run to one another, embrace, and plant a thousand kisses on each other’s faces. I plan to start practicing this with Tucker, too, as it helps him focus on the fact that we will come back and be together again. We can talk about how much we will miss each other and how happy we will be to be together again.
When you get home, you will likely experience jet lag and extreme exhaustion, but dig deep and find the energy and love to listen to your children and pour into them. They will need to experience your affection, assurance, and love. Be patient with regression in behavior, especially with your previously adopted kids. Speak their love languages. Give them opportunities to share their big feelings – their sad, mad, glad, and scared. Share your feelings, too. Snuggle on the couch, read books together, play outside, make eye contact that communicates love, rock your children, and embrace one another.
You’re all home together at last. Hallelujah!