Family mentor Zeng Feiling was skeptical when Huang Yasheng applied to be a stay-at-home dad for OneSky’s Loving Families Program. Huang Yasheng, who was working full-time as a carpenter, and his wife Zeng Lanjuan, who was working at home full-time, were doing a wonderful job as foster parents for four children with special needs. But employing two stay-at-home parents would mean adding four more children with special needs to the family.
“My first thought was eight children… impossible!” recalls Zeng Feiling. She also admits that though she knew she was stereotyping, she was skeptical that Huang Yasheng would be suitable for the job of parenting full-time at home because men typically don’t have the temperament for it. “People who take this job have to have tons of patience not only because children cry a lot but also because it is even more difficult parenting children with special needs.”
Nevertheless, OneSky decided to take a chance on the new arrangement and now Zeng Feiling readily admits, “I was wrong.” Huang Yasheng has proven to be a supportive, inventive and fun dad of seven girls and one boy ranging in age from two to 12 whose special needs include cerebral palsy, congenital heart disease, and Down syndrome. Huang Yashen’s guiding principle, underscored by OneSky’s foster parent training, is that children should be treated “with kindness from the bottom of our hearts.”
Huang Yahseng also turned out to be exceptionally well suited temperamentally to be a stay-at-home dad because, says, Zeng Feiling, he is a “child king,” a kid at heart. On weekend outings, Huang Yasheng is even more active than the children, playing all sorts of games with zest, including blowing up balloons and bubbles and “ride the train” in which the children line up and run behind him. Another favorite is when Huang Yasheng holds the children up high and spins them around. When Zeng Feiling asked seven-year-old Peipei, “Do you like your dad?” she nodded and exclaimed: “Spin!”
Though he is a fun dad, Huang Yasheng also helps keep order in what could easily become a chaotic household. For example, Huxin, Huang Yasheng’s eight-year-old son, who has serious mental disabilities, was impervious to his dad’s order that he needed to go to bed. Then Huang Yasheng came up with an idea: when it’s time for bed, he pretends to snore, signaling that it’s bedtime. Gradually Huxin got used to that signal and he was never late going to bed. “Sometimes we just need some strategies to reason with mischievous children,” says Huang Yasheng.
Huang Yasheng thinks he inherited his affection for children from his father, who was always warm and inspiring, despite the challenges of raising a family in poverty. At mealtimes with his five brothers and sisters, “If I tried to reach for more food, my mother used chopsticks to hit my hands.” When he turned ten, Huang Yasheng’s dad told him he had to quit going to school so he could take on the job of running the household—he cooked, cut firewood, carried well water and herded the cows indefatigably. At 14, Huang Yasheng was able to go back to primary school, but dropped out once and for all after graduating from junior high school.
Now that she has so much help from her husband, Zeng Lanjuan’s job as a stay-at-home mom has more time to enjoy all her children. Zeng Lanjuan has learned she can depend on her husband when she is stymied. For example, 14-month-old Jiajia, their youngest child, had been crying intensely for over a week. Both parents were worried and seldom slept through the night. They were even starting to think that Jiajia was more than they could handle. They tried every means to calm Jiajia down, including cuddling her constantly, but nothing worked. Then they noticed that Jiajia had developed a special bond with her dad, so he took on the task of lulling her to sleep. Soon she was falling quickly into a serene sleep and waking up in the morning the same time her dad wakes up. The bond is mutual. Huang Yasheng feels his life is complete when Jiajia calls him dad.
Of course there have been intense challenges, some of which Huang Yasheng believes stem from his children’s years of living in an orphanage rather than a family. Because two of their children arrived without toilet training, Huang Yasheng and Zeng Lanjuan were constantly cleaning up urine and feces in the house, which smelled horrible. It took a month of both parents getting up at two or three in the morning, but those sleepless nights paid off when both children learned to use the toilet. Says Huang Yasheng, “We were a little frustrated at first, but I wasn’t tired. When I was young, I had already gotten into the habit of sleeping for only several hours. Four hours of sleep is adequate for me to stay energetic.”
Now that the couple works so closely together, they have developed a closer rapport than they had when Huang Yasheng spent long days at work. They do not divide their work rigidly and hardly ever have any disagreements about who should do what, often preferring to take turns.
For example, Huang Yasheng and Zeng Lanjuan take turns making breakfast every morning. Because Huang Yasheng doesn’t need much sleep, when it’s his turn, he gets up before everyone else so he can prepare the breakfast before the family’s 5 am wakeup time. Then it takes almost an hour to wake all the children and dress, clean and feed them. Zeng Lanjuan ties the four oldest girls’ hair into neat pigtails. Thankfully, big sister Lan, who is 11, loves to help.
After breakfast, Huang Yasheng takes five children to their classrooms on the fifth and sixth floors of the orphanage and Zeng Lanjuan takes three children to theirs on the first floor. Back at the apartment, Huang Yasheng cleans while Zeng Lanjuan, who is an excellent cook, makes lunch. Huang Yasheng picks up all the children in the afternoon and the couple works together to make sure all eight children have their baths in the evening.
Evenings are also the time for singing parties led by Zeng Lanjuan, who has “kid at heart” qualities of her own. Because of her dancing and singing talents, she was admitted to an arts school after junior high thanks to singing and dancing talents, but her mother did not permit her to go. Nevertheless, she became the director of her village’s Cantonese opera troupe. At home, she unleashes her fervent passion for singing. To joy-filled music, the entire family sings in the morning and things gets livelier and livelier as the day goes by. The optimism is contagious. Though Zeng Lanjuan’s singing parties start with her family, they frequently spread to the neighbors, who can’t resist joining in.
Huang Yasheng says his wife’s musical talent helped turn one of the children, their 4-year-old daughter Anyun, around. When Anyun first joined the family, she did not want to move or talk and slept all the time, but now she is more outgoing—she visits the neighbors, says hello and then blows them a lovely kiss. “What a big difference a family has made for Anyun!” says Huang Yasheng.
Zeng Lanjuan is equally expansive praising her husband, who is much more involved in raising their foster children than he was raising their biological children because he had to work outside of the home and leave the village to find work in big cities. She singles out his special bond with Jiajia. “In his eyes, she is an infant who warrants more careful attention. Sometimes he even hoards snacks for her,” laughs Zeng Lanjuan.
The couple’s biological son Bin also recognizes how great his dad and mom are at their jobs. “I am so proud of my parents. They’re very good at overseeing the children’s growth every day.” On a recent visit, Bin and his girlfriend Caihua, who is a preschool teacher, jumped into family activities. When Jiajia handed some colorful paper to Caihua, she deftly folded the sheets into beautiful shapes for the children. Bin helped his mother prepare dinner, set up the table, and poured soup for each of his siblings, who were captivated by their big brother, especially Anyun, who couldn’t take her eyes off him. Bin told her: “Anyun, you are so adorable. You have very big eyes!”
Both parents find their work for the children more rewarding than their previous jobs. Zeng Lanjuan used to cook for 100 people in a factory and her food was popular among the workers. Nevertheless, she rebuffs suggestions that she start her own food business: “My wife is very talkative and has a shrewd business mind, but when a relative recommended that she start her own business, she said that seeing the children eat the food she cooks makes her prouder.”
Huang Yasheng feels the same way. He has a friend who keeps trying to talk him into going into the furniture industry again with him. “I have refused. I would rather care for children who give meaning to my life than make furniture. As long as OneSky wants my wife and me, we want to stay and help raise these children.”
By Louis Luo
Senior Coordinator, Communications