Dear Diary.... The Transition Home
Hello! Happy Friday! I've had some requests to talk a little bit about our initial transition when we came home with O from Korea. I will preface this post with this statement: This is just OUR experience. Not everyone's has been or will be exactly the same. There are a ton of things to factor in that are so unique to your child. Age, level of grief, development of your child, etc. I'm also going to share some things I wish we would have done differently and things we are glad we did.
So, as I'm sure you can imagine, jet-lag played a huge role in our first few weeks home. We were all tired, all of the time. Looking back, O handled it way better than I did. I love my sleep. I was used to getting 8-9 hours of sleep every night and could fall asleep anywhere if I stayed still long enough. Sleep and I were bff's. O, however, thinks sleep is the worst thing on planet earth (still to this day, mostly) and will do anything to stay awake. Once we got past the jet-lag is where I think it's safe to start looking at the transition. The first few weeks were a blur filled with late night watching of Pororo and Tayo, blips of sleep, eating, and desperation.
Language: O was pretty advanced with his speech in Korean. He was speaking full sentences (he came home at just over 2 1/2 years old) and way above our pay grade with smarts. We stuck to learning some basic words and pointing. It's just what worked best. When we tried using sentences, he would look at us like we were still speaking English. Which solved nothing. So, words and pointing. And Google Translate. There were times that we would say words in Korean that still didn't sound quite right to him. But if we entered it into Google Translate and had the app say the word, he'd perk up. We gradually started introducing the English word for items starting with food. As an example, we'd say "Podo. Grapes." And he started repeating it back to us. Food seemed to get his attention so that's why we started there. And it was easier. For other things, like toys, we would just tell him the English word. He started to enjoy it and he would bring all kinds of different toys over to us so we could tell him what they were.
Food: Food can be a huge instrument for showing grief. For us, it wasn't. O didn't over-eat or under-eat but he did still very much prefer his Korean diet. Lots of milk, rice and seaweed, yogurt, fruits, etc. The first time we tried to give him fast food he was disgusted. He has since outgrown that but it was pretty funny to see a 2 year old who would turn his nose up at french fries but devour sushi. Luckily, the agency in Korea does a great job providing you with paperwork at custody that spells out some of their likes and dislikes (as well as details on your child's personality and stuff like that). We had my mom do some grocery shopping for us while we were in Seoul so we'd have a fridge stocked when we came home. We also kept note of what he really liked to eat at home and just made sure to always have it on hand. We also have some local Korean grocery stores where we live. One in particular we go to is run by a man who is from Korea and has gotten to know a lot of us who have brought children home from Korea. He would talk to O in Korean and ask him what he wanted to eat. He'd walk the aisles with us and talk to O about the food. Even he was surprised by some of the things O would eat! That was very helpful. If you can find a place like that it makes a world of difference! There is also a local Korean restaurant that is popular with parents like us and they are very accommodating.
Sleep: I think sleep has been one of our biggest challenges. O was used to co-sleeping with his foster mom and so he was just NOT having it when it came to sleeping on his own. At night we would just all go to bed together and he would normally fall asleep pretty quickly. We'd usually watch one episode of something on the tv then turn it off. And then he'd be out. Nap time was a completely different story. Even in Korea he didn't nap well. But he very much needed it. I finally figured out that I could put him in the Tula carrier with a pillow he brought home from Korea and he'd fall asleep. I even got good at unhooking the straps on the carrier and laying him down without him waking. We did this for MONTHS. Even after I went back to work and he went to daycare. He'd sleep just fine at daycare, but on the weekends he required our routine. We co-slept at night for over a year and a half. We would have periods of trying to get him to sleep in his bed, but he'd always end up back with us. And then it was like something clicked and he finally just did it. He would fall asleep by himself and sleep all night in his bed. PRAISE THE LORD! We bought a clock for him room that turns green at the time we set he can leave his room. That's hit or miss, even to this day, but it at least give him an idea or concept of time if he wakes up in the middle of the night. Even now, he will wake up usually after the light is green and come downstairs to our room and crawl into our bed for a little more sleep (his light is set for 5:30am). And I'm ok with that. I'm usually awake anyways so it doesn't disrupt anything. Since he's been home, he has slept anywhere from 8-12 hours. Surprisingly, he'd sleep longer when we first came home. But the longer amount of time wasn't all that restful for us because sleeping with a toddler is, well, not comfortable. It feels like he grew 27 arms and legs and had to spread them out as much as humanly possible. O ALSO had bouts of night terrors (which are not the same as nightmares) and those were hard to watch. He would scream and kick and cry and then as suddenly as they came on, they would stop. He would only wake up if we actually woke him up. But his eyes would be open as if he was awake. But he wasn't there. Very strange. Those were hit or miss. We could never put our finger on why they would occur so we just dealt with them as they came.
Cocooning: Ultimately, we did our own version of cocooning. For the first couple of months we had small groups of people over with strict rules. No one but Appa or I could feed, hold, or comfort him. Once we felt like he was pretty well attached, we started allowing others to hold him with us around. That morphed into us dropping him off at a family member's house for a couple of hours (obviously during that time they could feed and hold him whenever they wanted). We were lucky that he trusted us pretty quickly and didn't just run to anyone. Even when we were less strict on holding he still preferred us. I felt like it was important to LET him trust others because we knew daycare was on the horizon. I don't really have a method as to how we did this, we just did a combination of following his lead and pushing him to new things periodically. At this point, he has spent the night with family members and does just fine. We have not left him anywhere for more than 2 nights but that's only because we just haven't gone anywhere (out of town or whatever) that would require it. Not because we are worried about it at this point.
Grief: This is probably the toughest part to write about. Because sometimes it's the hardest to identify. We had what is called the "honeymoon" phase. Sure, he had some fits and there were uncomfortable adjustments in the first few months O was home. But we didn't really see a lot of true grief consistently until about 6 months home. Let me lead with this sentence: Grief is not linear. It's very up and down and back and forth. There isn't a checklist you go through and know you are past something when you check it off. If you think that, then have a pencil so you can erase those checks you think mean that particular thing is behind you. I don't really have any words of advice here, honestly. There are days where O is just angry. Everything sets him off, he says means things, he seems totally out of whack. Those are the days we pick our battles. I find myself always questioning if his behaviors at a particular time are a result of being his age or grief/loss related. We just don't know and, for him, HE doesn't know. Even for as smart as he is, he never just walks up to me and says "Hey mom, I'm kinda grumpy because I miss my Eomma (foster mom). Can I have a hug?" He can't because his mind and body can't properly compute what exactly has happened. I try to imagine what that's like but I really can't. Because I'm an adult who can rationalize what is happening around me. But I try. My husband used to give the best example of what this might feel like to these kids. It goes something like this: I know who Ben Affleck is. I've seen him on tv, pictures of him, heard him talk. Seen videos. But if he came to my house and took me to some place I didn't know and away from the people I love, I'd be pretty mad. I wouldn't just say "Oh ok, this is my new life now. Cool." I think we believed that sending all the care packages to O while we waited to bring him home would help his transition. Seeing our photos, hearing our voices on recorded books, seeing videos of us. - that he would just magically love us and be ok. Don't get me wrong, there is a lot of value in doing those things and I highly suggest everyone do those things. But there isn't a perfect combination of anything that will make grief NOT happen. It has to happen and you just have to buckle up and do what you can to help them through it.
I'll wrap this up with some things we will try to do again and things we hope to do differently. We will definitely do our own version of cocooning again. It may look very different than how it was with O but that's the beauty of it. We will most likely co-sleep (but will definitely TRY P in his own bed) for a period of time. We will follow his lead. The last one tends to trip people up. I don't mean P will run the house, but we will be mindful to do things that make him feel secure - even if it's not our norm. For O that meant lots of walks in the neighborhood in his stroller. Like several times per day. Because it gave him some form of control in a situation that was so OUT of his control.
Only one thing sticks out to me as something we will look to do differently. Introducing the word "no". Now, hear me out. I don't mean we will only tell him no. What I mean is setting up better boundaries. Unless O was trying to do something life-threatening we just let him do whatever for a while. And Appa and I agree for too long. While there is trust that is built by letting them have some free reign with you, I think the unintended consequence was the lack of parameters and knowing what to expect. So maybe it's more about consistency? We were consistent with routine. We ate around the same time every day, we had a bath time routine, bed time routine, etc. O craves knowing what is coming and I think, even though he would have resisted it, he needed more routine with what to expect from us with his behaviors. We did a lot of diverting instead of addressing behaviors. Obviously, you have to be cognizant of age and development when setting expectations in your head. But just being more consistent overall. I'm not sure if this makes ANY sense but hopefully it does.
I'll leave you with this. You can read all the books in the world, all the blogs, listen to all the podcasts, attend all the seminars. And you should. Arm yourself with information. But also know that you have to trust your gut and you'll learn as you go. Even biological parents have to do that with their children. We are no different. You're going to screw up. Lose your patience. Say things you shouldn't. All of it. But we are all just doing the best we can. And our kids will be ok. Really. They will.