DJ, the child we hosted and advocated for during the summer of 2016 and our forever “nephew,” has officially been a son for one full year! We asked his mama, Rebecca, if she would give us an update on life back home in Chicago. This is her honest, f’real, brave and vulnerable look behind the scenes of the last challenging year as a mama to that boy we love so much. Thank you, Rebecca, for sharing your story. <3
Guest Post by Rebecca Harder
Does anyone else feel like time flies more quickly the older you get? I cannot believe that we are approaching the one-year anniversary of bringing our two boys (who were host children in the summer of 2016) home from China.
In the last 365 days, we went from being the parents of six kids to the parents of eight kids, from a household of girls to a household of both boys and girls, and from maintaining a food bill that was manageable to one that has gone through the roof (boys eat a ton, and so do girls that are on a swim team!).
The boys’ lives have been dramatically changed in the last 365 days, too. The boys, ages 10 and 12, have gone from being orphans to sons, from Chinese citizens to American citizens and from unknown faces in the midst of thousands of other orphans to photographed and beloved children. The biggest thing that the boys have told us is that they went from not ever hearing about Jesus to knowing who Jesus is, hearing about Him daily, spending time lifting prayers to Him and learning more about Him.
We have treasured our time as a family of ten. In this first year alone, we: took our first camping trip, took a canoe trip, learned how to shoot guns and a bow and arrow, held weekly family game and movie nights, went fruit picking (strawberries, blueberries and apples), went to the beach, took family road trips, enjoyed weekly trips to the farmers’ market during the summer, went to the movie theater, saw a ballet, attended a baseball game, served with our friends and family at Feed My Starving Children, took field trips (including to an Underground Railroad site), visited museums (planetarium, aquarium and the Science and Industry Museum), rode bikes, ran a 5k, swam, bowled, ice skated, roller skated, took a cooking class (where we made Chinese food, including jiaozi and baozi), rode roller coasters at Six Flags, met family (Grandma and aunts – more are coming soon) and petted animals (stingrays, tadpoles, farm animals and more).
Watching these boys participate in it all has been amazing. They are full of energy and keep us hopping in a way the girls never did. Their love and passion for life is contagious. To see them discover something new is like discovering the beauty and newness of things all over again. The excitement in their eyes when they saw Lake Michigan for the first time and the high rises in Chicago was like first arriving in Chicago 16 years ago myself.
When they took their first family car trip to Georgia to visit friends, they looked out the window so they would not miss a moment of the passing scenery. Every time I make traditional Chinese food, their eyes light up and they cannot stop saying thank you. That is one thing these boys have, great manners! They are also hard workers, both in school and around the house. I don’t have to ask them twice to do their chores. In fact, many times I don’t have to ask at all. They know what their jobs are and they do them without being asked! (Hello, can they teach my biological kids this?)
During homeschool, I give them their homework packets and they sit diligently until they are done. When they hug, they do it with all their hearts. They love fully and without reserve. When their feelings are hurt, they are quick to forgive. Their passion for life is addictive, and they bring joy everywhere they go.
But there have been hard times.
We adore these boys and we would never change anything about bringing them into our family. We love them passionately and we know that our Heavenly Father loves them even more! We KNOW that God brought them into our lives for a purpose and it is our prayer that we are able to live out His calling in our lives in all of our children’s lives.
That being said, I want to share openly, both about the beautiful and some of the difficult things that we have walked through over the last few months. I think it is so helpful to read from other families who have struggled in their adoption journey. It is easier to post cute pictures and talk about “one less orphan” than it is to be real and transparent about the hard times. My heart is still for “one less orphan,” but I want people who have walked through those doors to not feel alone. For those in process or who hope to walk through the doors, I also want to help you feel prepared … as much as you can be prepared in the world of adoption.
When we were preparing to adopt, I read tons of books and as many blogs and Facebook posts I could about transition, adopting an older child, connected parenting methods, etc. When I stepped on that plane a year ago, I thought that I had prepared for everything.
What I didn’t prepare for was my own heart and the issues I had to deal with as a result of hard days.
Everyone will tell you that adoption has unexpected bumps. You plan for the worst but hope for the best. Since both boys were hosted in the United States for a month in the summer of 2016, I felt like we had an upper hand on the unknowns. Both boys checked out to be healthy and loved being in America. Sure, there may have been some trauma issues from being in the orphan system for so long, but nothing we couldn’t handle. What were some physical handicaps? We could handle a boy with missing fingers and another one with a partially amputated leg … that was easy. At least we didn’t have children with delays and “bigger” issues. Or so we thought at the time.
Looking back at my thoughts and expectations, which I didn’t think I had, I’m kind of disappointed in myself. I didn’t think I had any expectations, but let’s be honest, we all have expectations deep down in our heart. I had the best of intentions for our boys. We would help them overcome any obstacle their physical handicap may present and we would give them every opportunity to succeed and be the best they could be. It was going to be great.
Things were going so well during our first weeks at home. The boys were picking up English quickly and adjusting to life in America. We had Chinese food on hand to help them transition, but they soon revealed they wanted to eat more “American” food. (Although they still love American food, when I make a traditional Chinese meal, their eyes get huge and they cannot say thank you enough.) We took numerous trips to Chinatown in Chicago to purchase authentic Chinese snacks and food, we participated in local Chinese classes and we even had the opportunity to celebrate Chinese New Year with a local Chinese group. We were trying hard to make sure that the boys had access to anything that helped them feel at home in America but still celebrate their roots. I mean, I cannot imagine my 10- and 12-year-old daughters picking up and moving to China. There would be so many transitions and feelings mixed in that mess.
We tried to apply this perspective during the boys’ transition. We spent the first few months home playing lots of games and practicing English. During the summer, we took a lot of field trips to local museums. We wanted the boys to experience and learn all that they could about their new home.
I also knew that they had missed out on so much when they were younger. From birth on, we made sure that our biological children experienced a myriad of different things to help their brains develop and grow. The boys didn’t have this experience, so we worked hard to rectify that.
Since we homeschool, I was able to see firsthand what the boys needed for school. Shan Chen was quick to learn, especially English. He was like a sponge, absorbing everything he was taught. I discovered that the boys never learned history or science in China, so we started to learn some basic science. In their short year home, the boys memorized the parts of the earth, types of rocks, types of volcanoes, parts of a volcano, the different atmospheres, types of clouds and air masses. (Note to homeschoolers: Classical Conversations has amazing science cards with basic facts kids should know. That is what we have been using with the boys to fill in the gaps of their learning). We have modified the history that the girls are learning to fit their level.
Overall, the experience in homeschooling has been manageable, but it hasn’t been without bumps.
Adding two new students who need a lot of individual help when you are teaching six other kids has been stressful. Let’s be honest — I want to make sure that I don’t fail my kids and look dumb to the world. I mean, we are already a huge family, which draws attention, now I am homeschooling all of these kids. I cannot have them looking dumb, right? That would make ME look bad. (There lies one of the dark parts of myself that I have discovered. I care way too much about how I look and what other people think about me. Thank you, adoption, for this revelation.)
The longer I taught DJ, the more I discovered that he had some learning issues. He wasn’t catching on like the rest of the kids. At first, I chalked it up to language. I mean, hello, if I went to China to school, I would be struggling a lot more than him. As the year progressed, I knew something was off, but I didn’t know what. I kept thinking it was just the adjustment, maybe past trauma or just that he was a poor student. I mean, not every kid is cut out to be an “A” student, right? Maybe Cs were the best he could do.
Another issue we faced during our transitional year was all the doctor appointments. Between DJ and Shan Chen, we attended 51 appointments in 11 months! This caused me to be away from home more than usual, which caused the girls to resent the boys. Here these boys came and took not only Mama’s time for school, but now time away for all these doctor appointments. The resentment and issues that resulted from that were difficult. Angry, hateful words came out of their mouths. I knew deep in their hearts they loved their brothers, but the hate I saw at times was awful. Of course, I can understand their hurt and frustration. I still vividly remember my parents doing foster care and feeling unloved by my mom, who was spending more time with the new foster kids than with me.
Selfishness. That is the key word I have learned about myself – I am selfish to the core. Everything really comes back to me. “How will these kids make me look to other people?” “Look at how much time these kids are taking away from me, I cannot even find time to exercise and I’m getting fat!” “What will people think of me?” … and on and on the thoughts went.
A wise friend told me that when you first start out in life you think, “Hey, I’m not that bad!” Then you get married and you discover things about yourself that your spouse brings out. “Wait, how am I so mean and unkind at times? It must be all HIS fault!” Then you and your imperfect spouse decide you want kids and you discover even more bad things about yourself. “What is wrong with my kids? Did they just say that?” Then you replay their words and you realize you say the EXACT.SAME.THING! They become little mirrors of your worst faults. Then you adopt and you discover even more flaws in your personality. No longer are you deceived that you are a “decent” person; you cling to Jesus to somehow get these kids raised.
My husband’s professor at Moody Bible Institute once said, “It’s only by God’s grace that two dysfunctional parents turn out a semi-functional child.” I feel those words all the time. I see so many failures every day. I lose patience, yell, understand why some moms have a drink of wine each night (my weakness is to eat chocolate … which doesn’t help my waistline).
On the other hand, it is beautiful because it makes me depend on Jesus so much more than I used to. I cannot make it through a day on my own. That optimistic woman from last year who thought, What are some physical handicaps? now realizes that there are so many more layers to raising eight children, especially when at least four of them are simultaneously experiencing puberty.
Yeah, that’s fun!
Adjusting to life with boys is different. Boys are just weird in so many ways. (Can you tell I only had sisters and was raising only girls?) It’s like some aliens moved into my house. Boys are completely foreign to me. They are stinky, noisy, cannot.sit.still, so much more. That has been an adjustment all on its own.
When we took the boys for their first physical when we got home from China, the doctor looked at me and told me that DJ was at the beginning of puberty. I thought to myself, Really, Lord? Couldn’t we have had at least a year with him before you threw that at me?
There have been times that I totally understand why people go and adopt cute little kids. Not only do you get to be part of their lives from a young age, but they are cute and don’t have as much “baggage” to resolve. Sure, you have to potty train them, but at least you aren’t thrown into the middle of puberty with a child who is just learning English and working through issues from being an orphan for 10 to 11 years!
As if that weren’t enough, God had some more lessons for me to learn.
DJ had some health issues a few months ago. When we visited the doctor’s office, the doctors asked some health questions and questioned DJ’s delays. We were thrown by this description, as we never said anything about delays. At our next visit with our local pediatrician, I mentioned it to him. I told him what the doctors had told us. He told me that he sees something delayed in DJ, as well. I asked him if it could just be trauma delays or learning English. He told me that he didn’t think so. He replied that there were some things that seemed way off for his age, more then would be seen with the two things I mentioned. He recommended that we take DJ in for testing.
My husband, Wayne, and I decided to wait until the beginning of the year to have DJ tested. We wanted to give DJ a chance to learn more English and transition further.
In December, we had our daughter Micaela tested for dyslexia. I was able to talk to the neuropsychologist about testing DJ. He said that he wouldn’t test DJ since he didn’t want the language barrier to become an issue in results. He suggested finding a doctor who spoke Mandarin and could test DJ without any barriers. After much prayer and waiting, we found a doctor in Chicago who spoke Mandarin and English. I spoke with her and told her we weren’t sure if there were learning disabilities or what was going on, but shared with her some of the things we had experienced with DJ. She recommended a consultation meeting where she could meet him and determine what tests she should use to test DJ. She said most of the tests are inherently biased to someone who has spoken English or was raised in the US. She selected a few tests that she could give him that would limit any of these biases from impacting his scores.
During our meeting, she interviewed DJ and talked with me. DJ displayed some of the behavior that had been making us scratch our heads in confusion.
Last week I met again with this respected professional after two sessions of testing. She said the tests concluded that DJ has fetal alcohol syndrome, autism, ADHD and across the board delays. She said that he is approximately a 6-year-old boy in all areas. This would explain some unique behaviors we have seen exhibited: having to keep to a strict schedule and getting panicked or fidgety when we deviate, talking to himself in unintelligible words, smiling to himself as he gets a far-off look like he is in his own world and experiencing learning issues in school.
When the neuropsychologist told me these diagnoses, I felt like the carpet had been ripped out from under me. These are things I have never faced as a parent, and they have some life-long implications. My dreams of giving my boys a successful future seemed dim at this point. I started wondering, Will DJ even be able to live on his own? I have to admit, in my selfishness, I thought, Lord, I cannot do that. His strict routine/schedule and behaviors are so challenging. Surely you cannot be asking me to deal with this FOREVER?!
God’s timing is always perfect, though. I had an extra hour before I met with the neuropsychologist and I used that time to get caught up in my Bible Study, “Proven.” The lesson was on fear and how to trust God’s plan. He could have stepped in and healed Lazarus, but He had a bigger plan in store. God reminded me that He is in control and He could have given us two kids with just physical disabilities, but would I really depend on Him like I have/will with these things we were now facing?
Knowing myself, no. I would have thought I could handle it all on my own.
Since God is so merciful and kind, two days after the diagnosis, the local school district called me about our registration. We decided that registering DJ in school would be best for him, and it would be best on our relationship. I was having a hard time being a loving mom but strict/firm teacher. Many times the teacher was out all the time and I was impatient and unkind to DJ, which now kills me knowing why he was doing what he was doing/not doing.
I had been looking into schools and found a great Christian school by us that focused on kids with delays and autism. I had contacted them and they said we should go through our local school district, since the school is about $50,000/year! I had heard from other friends that getting your child into the school through the district was really difficult. The district has to pay for the school and they would rather keep the funds in the schools.
Fast forward to Thursday, when I received a call from the district and they told me that they wanted to set up tours at the local junior high (hello! Scare me to death. Junior high was awful for me. There is no way DJ would survive.) and another local school they use out of district. I asked if they ever used this school I really liked. She said they have and would set up a tour.
Now, there is still no guarantee that he will get to attend this school, but just the fact that it is an option on the table is HUGE! God showed me that He cares about every aspect of our lives, including DJ’s education. He knows exactly what DJ needs and will get him where he needs to go. God was so kind to gently remind me that through the phone call from the district.
So, where does this leave us a year later? A year later we are all changed, Lord willing for the better. I am still a HUGE work in progress. Pray for us that we continue to lean on the Lord through all of this as we navigate roads I never thought I would have to navigate as a parent.
Some of you may be wondering, Would you still adopt DJ if you knew what you know now? My answer would be an overwhelming, resounding “YES!” This does not change my deep and forever love for DJ or our decision. It might have been harder to obey and say yes, but we would have obeyed God’s call. We KNOW that God wanted us to adopt DJ and Shan Chen, so for good or for bad, we are here for the long haul.
In addition, God is using this to stretch us and grow us. DJ and Shan Chen would most likely never have had the opportunity to learn about Jesus in China. Now they have learned about God and His love for them. How could we think that we would want life any different?
The life of a mama (or a missionary) is filled with unknowns and scary roads. This is the mission that God has called us to. Although it is a blessing, it is not easy many days, and yet we have the One who loves both boys more than we ever could walking along this journey with us.
Hudson Taylor once said, “All our difficulties are only platforms for the manifestations of His grace, power and love.”
We trust that just like God used my husband’s brain cancer as a platform to manifest His grace, we are trusting that God will use our family through this new journey to glorify Him, too!
Want to follow DJ and the Harder family? Check out Rebecca's blog at www.harderfamilyadventures.com.