Sunday, March 30, 2014

Life is Subject to Change

It rained all morning five years ago today in Nanning. To pass the final few hours of anxious waiting, I walked around the people's park. I had an appointment at 3 pm to meet my new daughter. For years walking in places such as this park, where families and children congregate, would trigger a quiet sadness in me. I had gotten quite accustomed to silencing it trying to focus my attention on other things such as my work, my relationships, and creativity.

People's Park, Nanning, Guangxi, China
There are moments in my life I will never forget-- the day my therapist asked me, why  couldn't I talk to my husband again about having a family. Kevin had already raised a family and I had accepted that he wanted us to have the freedom to travel and focus on us. My therapist said to me then his trademark line, a gift to me that I now tell my own clients; "Life is subject to change." It was such a freeing moment to understand that I could honor my own feelings and make requests on their behalf. I realized that I didn't have to ignore that part of me that had been grieving the belief that I was never going to be a mother. I decided that I would talk to Kevin that weekend. I remember we were driving past the high school as I was finishing up my speech. My presentation had included the idea of adopting an older child and concluded with the request that he take time to think about things for a few days before giving me an answer.  I was relieved beyond belief to learn that Kevin could be flexible with his own vision of his future. At this point in time, multiple sclerosis had not yet robbed him of his mobility and he had a very different future in mind for himself. It turns out Kevin needed Jingju just as much as I did. We just didn't know it then.

Jingju has now been with us almost as many years as she lived in an orphanage in China. Her memories of the time leading up to her adoption are sketchy, but they are like mine, hinged on pivotal moments.  She told me that one day someone walked into her classroom and asked the group of children, "Who wants a family, raise your hand." I picture this scene and imagine her little hand going up cautiously. How could she understand what she was saying yes to? What did she really think it meant to have a family? Did she understand it meant leaving her nanny and her friends and China altogether?
Jingju and her nanny on adoption day 3/30/2009

Jingju tells me that on the day of her leaving her orphanage, she was told to get dressed in the clothes we had sent to her. She says she rode on a bus to Nanning and didn't really know where she was going until they were underway. Her memory of this day has gotten hazy, and like most of her past life in China, we will only know what we can glean from the pictures and progress notes from Half the Sky. But I will never forget the moment she walked in with her nanny to the room where I was waiting for her. I can only guess her nanny told her to walk over to me, which she did. She took my hand and let me hug her. The qualities I saw in Jingju on that first day ranged from a yin yang of cautious bravery and bold restraint. She was so sweet and loving with her nanny, and quietly cried with such heartbreaking sadness when her nanny left. Over the next few days Jingju gradually opened herself up to me and became playful with me. It was clear what a resilient, bright, and curious child she was and that one of her greatest strengths is her ability to roll with and accept change. I am so privileged and thankful  to be Jingju's mother. My journey to Jingju began with the moment I gave myself permission to honor my need to be a mother. Kevin and Jingju both said yes in turn, and we became a family.

Jingju today

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Wish You Happy Forever

I have written here often about my gratitude to Half the Sky for the loving care Jingju received while living in two orphanages in China. And so it was with great interest that I read Wish You Happy Forever, the new book by Jenny Bowen, founder of Half the Sky.

Watching her adopted daughter, Maya, out her kitchen window one day giggling and playing in the yard, Bowen decided she had to find a way to bring “family love” to the children she couldn’t bring home. Her daughter had been home a year and had blossomed in the care of her new family. It was a simple idea—“I would find the way to bring a family’s love to children who had lost theirs. I’d bring Maya’s miracle to China.”

At the time, Bowen was working as a screenwriter and filmmaker and admittedly knew nothing about starting a not-for-profit organization or very much about China. Nor was she an expert on child development, but she believed that she could ameliorate the negative effects of institutionalized living on children by giving them love. Wish You Happy Forever is the story of an impossible dream coming true. One orphanage at a time, Jenny brought her Half the Sky program to children who would otherwise be left to unimaginable deprivation. She faced significant challenges along the way, forging partnerships with Chinese officials, navigating around government bureaucracy, and multiple roadblocks along the way to ultimately redefine a philosophy of care for institutionalized children. Bowen envisioned babies being held and stimulated where they had before been left alone in cribs due to staffing shortages and other issues. She developed the Infant Nurture program, which pairs infants and toddlers with nannies who provide care such as a parent would give. The Little Sisters program provides early childhood education preparing children to eventually be able to enter Chinese schools. Older children and children with special needs who might not ever be adopted all receive care and attention in the Half the Sky programs.

My own daughter’s journey to a family might have been a very different one without Half the Sky. In May of 2005 Jingju was transferred from her orphanage in Beihai to one in Wuhzou in order to enter Half the Sky’s Little Sister’s preschool program. She later returned to Beihai in August of 2007 when the Little Sister’s program was established there as well. Even though I know how Jingju’s story turned out, I noticed myself keeping track of dates as I read Bowen’s book. Half the Sky was born in 1998, just 5 years before Jingju was born. The preschool program came to Wuzhou when Jingju was 21 months old. How different might Jingju’s life have been were it not for Jenny Bowen’s amazing, impossible dream? I have an idea from her description of the conditions in the orphanages she visited before she took on their rebuild. I wish Jingju had never had to experience life in an orphanage at all, but at least I know that while she was there she was loved. An excerpt from Jingju’s Half the Sky progress report reassures me of this and is an example of the success of Bowen’s philosophy:

“When she first came to the program, she would make childish babbling sounds but
could not yet talk or express herself. She rarely smiled and did not cling to adults or
Jingju May11, 2005
whine to get her way. She could walk, but could not walk down the stairs by herself.
She wasn’t able to take care of herself very well for a child her age. Judging from her
situation, I think that giving her family love and increasing her ability to do things on
her own are the most crucial things to focus on. Every day, I would hug her, talk to
her, pat her lightly and potty train her—in essence letting her have a sense of
security and trust around me. After a week, she began to smile more. She wanted me
to hug her when she sees me everyday, and was very welcoming of my presence. I
think receiving such family love is putting her on a stable road, and she is beginning
to develop abilities to take care of herself.”

The title, Wish You Happy Forever refers to a letter Bowen received from a child whose life she touched. But it is clearly Bowen’s wish that every child without a family know love in order to be happy. Thank goodness she looked out the window that day.