Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Over the Waterfall

I have spent the last year of my life tangled up in a myriad of emotions as our life changed by becoming a foster family. As I sought to find footing in this new territory I found my heart colliding with a sticky spider web of complicated feelings: commitment, fatigue, fear, vulnerability, frustration, tenderness, guilt, passion, protectiveness and love.

The most complex emotional terrain, by far, has been the effort to shepherd the hearts in my home--to simultaneously attempt to give our our little girls space to reclaim childhood and be free of the very adult drama that led them here, to protect my marriage from the effects of being disconnected and overextended and to allow my tweens to engage their hearts in the rebuilding of these girls' lives, while leaving lasting impressions on their own. It has been all encompassing. In the midst of all this other work, there hasn't been much time to reflect on my own heart. Lack of time and energy for the task has made my ability to compartmentalize a gift.

Instead of fretting, I have put my head down and tried to simply get it done--this work of loving with my life--keeping everyone alive, clothed, in school and emotionally stable until the next court date.

Like a woman longing to conceive, my emotions rose and fell based on dates on the calendar-except unlike my fertility journey, these dates were about 3 months apart and based on court hearings instead of pregnancy tests.

We've had five court dates in 13 months and the 'finish line' for our girls case gets moved farther out each time. Recently, I was informed of yet another change in the expected timeline (which I am learning is about as reliable as the NORAD Santa tracker in predicting the exact time the man in red will leave gifts under the tree.) While we've become accustomed to days becoming weeks, this new timeline stretched things at least 6 more months.

With this recent news a funny thing happened, the finish line finally got moved so far out of sight it was no longer my focus. I felt lighter because deep in my heart there was a peace that said, "Now you can stop thinking about the ending and just focus on today." (Can I get an Amen?)

This realization brought unexpected sweet relief, because it has allowed me to not feel like I am living out of a temporary emotional suitcase anymore--always on the ready with my "go bag." Taking my eyes off the end has freed me up to unpack some emotional baggage I wasn't fully aware I was carrying and just get comfortable here.

If the predicted timeline holds true, we will have had these girls 12 months and 19 months when it is time to depart. This is a significant chapter of their childhood and my family's life. Self protection is of no avail. It is going to hurt. But, I don't want to live in self-erected towers of preservation built out of deeply rooted fear any more--they are an exhausting, isolating illusion.


“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid.” -Frederick Buechner

I was talking to a friend yesterday about how much freedom I feel now that I can admit I am the person in the barrel absolutely heading over the waterfall. There is no exit ramp. I am going--so I might as well throw my head back and open my eyes wide. She replied: "You can go mad or go glad, but either way you are going." We laughed a little harder than we probably should have, because life has taught us both the bittersweet truth of that statement.

Right about this same time our 5 year old has started hugging me tightly at random times throughout the day and saying, "I love you soooo much and will miss you when I leave." She's not tearful, just truthful. I hug her back and say, "Me too, but you aren't leaving today so let's fill each other up with love and cuddles until you do." We hug and giggle because this surprisingly simple approach brings us both peace.

We can't control or predict the future, but we can live, love and laugh HERE in the NOW.

As if on cue, I read this devotion from Sarah Young's Jesus Calling last week, "Don't take yourself or your circumstances so seriously. Relax and know that I am God with you.When you desire my will above all else, life becomes much less threatening. Stop trying to monitor my responsibilities--things that are beyond your control. Find freedom by accepting the limits of your domain..."

It is a lesson that extends far beyond our foster care experience into many other aspects of life and relationship. This world is broken. We will get hurt. Go mad or go glad? The choice is yours.

"She is clothed in strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come..." Proverb 31:25

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Love in Real Life

A couple of weeks ago I was in a bookstore with my children when the young couple caught my eye.

It was the sound of their laughter that first attracted my attention. The way they leaned into each other around an oversized book he was holding drew me in. The couple, in their early twenties were standing in front of the pet books, arms interlocked and heads tilted close enough to almost touch as they giggled over a large dog encyclopedia. I observed them long enough to watch them settle down at a table in the Starbucks cafe and flip leisurely through the pages--talking excitedly about the pros and cons of various breeds of dogs. 


I confess I was a bit more of a stalker than I intended to be, but I couldn't stop watching them. The whole scene tapped into something bittersweet in my heart--reminding me of the hours Ryland and I spent during our engagement and first year of marriage discussing our ideal dog. We hovered over our large desktop PC in our Virginia apartment many nights after work before finally selecting our chocolate lab, Haley (who turns 13 years old in a few weeks.)

As I stood in line waiting for my coffee, I wondered what it was about this particular scene that caused such a twinge in my heart. I realized it was the time and space to just sit in a coffee shop together and dream about the future that seemed so far away from my current reality. 

We are a couple of decades ahead of those dreamers--in our 40s with five children, in the midst of living many of the things we once merely planned. Ryland & I do intentionally seek out time together as a couple, but increasingly when we manage to squeeze in a date night it feels like we are "on the clock" with a sitter or reactively working through an agenda of "must discuss" items.
  
I love my life as a mother. There are so many deep, rich, stretching, beautiful elements of this crazy ride. But still, I really wanted to pull a chair up next to this cute couple and tell them to savor these days--the ones where you can finish a conversation without interruptions over perceived emergencies like missing shoes, someone hurting feelings with a mere look or batteries that need recharging.  I wanted to tell them to enjoy the lingering and the ability to actually look at each other's faces when you speak. We are so often in divide and conquer mode that I forget to simply make eye contact with the man who holds my heart. 

Last Saturday while our oldest four were away at church camp, dear friends hosted our five year old for the night. Ryland & I had exactly 24 hours together at home with no children. We made grand plans to travel to Nashville for an exciting event with one of my favorite authors, but scrapped it so we could just hit pause, stay home and reconnect. We realized we had never spent a night home without our children--we always leave them here and go (run!) away to reconnect.

During our staycation, we ate grown up food, tackled overdue projects, thoroughly cleaned my suburban and most importantly, finished every conversation we started. At one point as we stood among the gravel of our half completed driveway (not exactly the epicenter of romance) and were able to actually talk through the details of the project as opposed to being in constant reactive mode, Ryland released a deep, fulfilled sigh and said "This was exactly what I needed...to just get you back."

Ironically, the 24 hours at home together breathed more life back into our marriage than the anniversary week in St. Barth's we enjoyed in January. It sounds so provincial but it is true. I am a travel lover, but in this season what we needed most was a pause, to reorient ourselves here in our real life. In the end I realized this is a blessing, because while beaches are beautiful, a fancy escape isn't necessary to find each other. It just takes a few less kids and a bit more eye contact to reclaim romance and connection right here where we live.

I read an article recently that encouraged studying our mates and familiarizing ourselves with what they need. I was convicted. What if we spent as much time identifying and attempting to meet the needs of our spouses as we do those of our offspring? For the last twelve years I have made myself an expert on my children. I could tell you with great clarity what they need to thrive. But that is not always the case with my mate--especially in this season of life, full of stressors, busy-ness and distraction.

Summer is full of kids coming and going. (We just dropped two of our big kids at camp today.) Here's to making the most of the times in between-- to linger a little longer with the ones we love, to make eye contact, maybe even to dream...





Thursday, May 19, 2016

370 Days

When we met two little displaced girls in the dark on our front walkway last Spring, we were told to expect this to resolve in a few months. Last week marked one year since our oldest foster daughter, Bug, came to live in our home.
One year.
52 weeks.
365 bedtimes.

Unlike an anniversary to celebrate, May 13th brought mixed emotions. What do you do with a day that represents brokenness, removal and the reorientation of a little life? I chose to lay low and not say much, until bedtime when she brought it up.

As I was tucking her in, her abrupt words sliced through the fading evening light. "I've lived here a year now. I'm never going home, am I?"
Gulp.

A long conversation followed. It was full of love but devoid of promises or timelines because decisions about outcomes aren't mine to make--nor are they hers. This is where we live...running a race with no idea of the length or challenges remaining on the course. One day we will round a corner and spot a finish line, but until then we run--loving, stumbling and learning-- together.

This week I noticed another trend--second timing. Today is her second field day in our home and tomorrow is her second last day of school in our family. Again, this trend is bittersweet. We have a trove of memories together. There is depth to our relationship. But there is now a widening gulf in time between her old life and this one. What we initially viewed as a layover on her journey has extended to an ever-lengthening chapter.

She's even come to embrace that while I am not "real" Mommy, I am "right now" Mommy for however long God sees fit. I cannot imagine the past year of my life without Bug and her sisters in it. Our hearts and lives are forever changed.

And tomorrow we start our second Summer break.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Regarding Honors Day

Yesterday our school held its annual Honors Day, recognizing students for academic excellence and strength of character. It was a day of mixed emotions, because (like real life) everyone does not get a medal.

There was the expected pride and jubilation by those receiving the awards (and their paparazzi parents) as well as disappointment and borderline-shame from those whose names were not called upon to be honored. The first graders joyfully devoured the dum dum suckers that had apparently been handed out to keep them quiet. Some of the 2nd & 3rd grade boys on the aisle stretched for high fives with each recipient as they walked forward to be recognized.

Many of the older elementary students seemed to sit up straighter with the announcement of each category and shrink back a little with resignation when their name was not the one called for their grade level. There was even the unfortunate muttering-under-breath from a handful of children who haven't yet mastered the art of sportsmanship or editing their self expression.

Our school's tradition is to keep all awards a secret. Parents of children who are being recognized receive a cryptic email stating "Your child is receiving an award. Please do not discuss this with anyone." The specific child, nor the award are revealed. For those of us with multiple children there is the added twist of wondering which will be recognized and in what area. I found that I, too, sat up a little straighter each time a 5th grade award was on the agenda.

It can be tempting as parents to view awards days as a measure of us and how well our little people are turning out. In doing so, we can relegate our children to projects we are developing. Does the world approve of them? From my adoring mother's perspective, it was plausible that each of our trio could have been recognized in some area. They are bright, precocious, growing 5th graders who are (mostly) kind...and so are dozens of others of their peers. In the end, 7 of the 46 in their class received individual honors, including 1/3 of my trio.

After all the names had been called, a mom of three children (spread out in different grades) turned to me and asked if I was nervous about handling the 'fallout' of only one award. As I sat in the bleachers and pondered the question I thought: This is the stuff of life lessons.

In our own home we had an immediate opportunity to practice celebrating with those who have been recognized and encouraging those who didn't have their moment in the sun this time. I think social media makes this true even in homes without multiple same aged children. This week my Facebook timeline and Instagram feed are full of rightfully proud parents. The parents, after all, are privy to just how hard a child has been working in a subject area, the obstacles that have been overcome and how this recognition may have been just what was needed in a particular season to urge a child to keep going.

After the ceremony, I had a little one-on-one time running errands with one of my non-recognized children. We were birthday party planning and the subject of the awards ceremony had not been discussed. As we walked down the snack aisle at Kroger he commented matter of factly, "I try a lot of things, but the only trophies I have ever received are for participation." He didn't betray any sadness or sour grapes per se...merely a somewhat resigned observation.

He went on to comment on a few of the specific recipients and how well deserved their honor had been. Although it was mostly a kid-led conversation with no lecture from Mom (this time) my heart lept at the real life sweetness. What I LOVE most about motherhood are the moments of realization as our kids start to put together their understanding of how the world works.

In those moments I am so grateful for the perspective from 41 1/2 years of living and all the more committed to being a centered adult who does not ride the roller coaster of tween emotions.

Contemplating the day, I was flooded with memories of many awards days in my past--some where I felt overwhelmed by an honor and others when I felt overlooked by not having my name called. I have been on both sides--flattered and frustrated.

In a world full of participation trophies, I value the tradition of awards--to lift up examples to which others can aspire and to say "I see you, great job." I rejoice with the kid in my home who was honored--and the fresh wind it put in that child's sails. The excited faces of the kids who were honored were precious and moving. Hooray for the noteworthy kids!

But I also empathize with the ones who didn't get a prize this time. Some of them get their kudos on a sports field or court, others from an audience as they perform, but some of them haven't yet had an outstanding talent or ability emerge that earned them public recognition. Everyone blooms in different ways and at various times. It is important to teach our unrecognized children that the awards and medals aren't to be expected, nor the measure of their worth or sole motivation for good work. Awards are simply the icing on top.

Our experience also serves as a parenting reminder to rejoice over success all along the journey in meaningful and sincere ways. In may not be a public medal, but a pat on the back, an eyeball to eyeball congratulations on a new skill or a sticky note on a bedside table complimenting a budding character trait go a long way. In the long run being seen, affirmed and valued is what all of us seek--and that should never be solely dependent on a Spring awards day.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Because You Don't Always Know the Back Story

I had a restorative brunch with some of my dearest friends this morning--an incredibly therapeutic way to start a busy Spring week. Among the many turns our conversation took was some confession on my part of an insecurity I am carrying related to one of my children.

I stop by the school a few times a week with a delivery that to a casual observer would seem absurd. Honestly, before I was in the situation I would have judged my actions as enabling, coddling from a Mama with too much time on her hands. Maybe in a few years, I will look back with a different perspective--but for now, they seem right, loving and appropriate.

My pride wants to explain why I am there and justify my decision--but my kids are now at an age where their story is not always mine to tell. It is not my responsibility to satisfy the curiosity of others or to assuage my pride by justifying actions. I'll risk judgment to protect my child's privacy and preserve our trust.

As I was talking with my friends, one of them teared up and shared a similar story from her adolescence--when her mother came to the school parking lot every day during PE to help her dress out so the other girls in the locker room wouldn't see her back brace and tease her. As tears streamed down her face she said, "I don't remember any of her lectures or specific lessons she intended for me at that age--but I remember that my Mama made sure I felt safe and loved."

We all laughed through our tears that this sacrificial act by her mother likely caused people who didn't understand the back story to label her in a negative way. I cringed at the realization I have certainly made the same mistake with my peers.

As an ex-Montessori Mama, a believer in empowering our kids, fostering independence and teaching our kids to be brave--I feel like a bit of a hypocrite. Yet, I am growing to realize that the most dangerous mistake we can make as parents is making broad, sweeping generalizations that we then cling to for the sake of our pride.

I am learning that mothering God's way means abiding in Him. Yes, there are general rules that always hold true--but those are fewer and farther between than I previously thought. God's grace is sufficient for TODAY--so I am trusting Him moment by moment, step by step and decision by decision. The road is different for each child. I'm trusting their Creator as my guide.

Furthermore, it is not my job to judge another Mama doing the same thing.

As we race toward the finish line of elementary school and look towards all the awkward, anxiety producing, exciting growth of middle school, I pray God will keep reminding me there is generally a lot more to the story than what we see on the surface--and most of us are just doing the best we can!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Myth of Perfect Parenting

As a first time parent 12 years ago, I left few stones unturned in my efforts to parent well. A great deal of research went into what types of bottles, diapers, rash creams, formulas, strollers, cribs, sleep training, detergents to purchase...even what music to play in the nursery. Keenly aware this was likely my one shot at parenting, this type A personality wanted to do well. I didn't think of it as perfectionism...but more so as good stewardship of what I had been entrusted.

Eleven years later as first time foster parents, my pendulum had swung far in the other direction. Of course I still possess a desire to serve well, but my road tested and oft-humbled ego had a much more realistic and practical approach. We will keep the children God brings to us safe--and love them. This was essentially my strategy: Our family is functioning pretty well...these children will just get on board. Clearly it will be better than the difficult circumstances from which they have come. In its own way, this too, felt like stewardship.

As time has built bonds with these girls and my bio children have morphed into full-fledged tweens, I have found myself somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Needs of the children have come to light over time. I have tried to dig in and meet each where they are and in the process found myself frustrated, exhausted and inconsistent. Being pushed to the limits of self has led me at times to take on a "whack a mole" approach--dealing with squeaky wheels and burning bushes. This from the girl who has a written family vision statement... How God must laugh!

Through this process I have realized that 'perfectly' parenting each of my current five is impossible. I am drinking from a fire hose. There is just not enough time in the day, energy in my body or insight in my mind and heart to give them all a perfect childhood. I am not every referring to Pinterest worthy meals, pony rides and perfect braids...I gave up on that long ago. Some days I struggle to cover basic table manners and homework time--much less reach their hearts and combat the lies that already plague each of them to some degree.

My flesh has failed. I cannot do this with the excellence I desire.

This realization was simultaneously freeing and deep-sigh inducing.
Am I in over my head?
Am I doing more damage to these kids than good?
What were we thinking signing up to take on more when we already had our hands full with three?
Were we obedient or arrogant?

As I confessed all this to God over the course of a few weeks of somewhat hand-wringing prayer, He sent me perspective-shifting and peace-bringing truth.

"Today, we groan as we serve God, because we know all too well our handicaps and blemishes, but one day we shall serve Him perfectly!" Warren Wiersbe

And because that quote came from a study I am currently doing on the book of Revelation, it led to a revelation of my own: We simply cannot serve perfectly this side of heaven.

Furthermore, these people I have been subconsciously trying to polish up and perfect are children...little, immature but growing people. The point of childhood is to train them up no doubt, but we are preparing to launch them into the world as adults--not place them in museums as flawless specimens. They are each unique works of art, full of imperfection and quirks.

As I have received calls from teachers about issues in need of addressing (in bios and fosters), sat across from psychologists and engaged in conferences with faculty and my husband I have had to giggle that 'perfecting' a child ever crossed my mind. After all, at 41 I am more aware of my own inadequacies, weaknesses and vulnerabilities than ever. We all have a long way to go--and this is the journey of life.

I am not for throwing in the towel and settling for mediocrity...but I am a huge fan of perspective. Stop. Breathe. Laugh. Savor. Coach. Love. And agree that the only way to make it through this parenting gig with our sanity and our faith is to take it all one grace-filled day at a time.

Regardless of how the current circumstances line up with my strategy or plan, "THIS is the day the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it." Psalm 118 NASB

Thursday, April 21, 2016

To the bio parent of my foster child

In the last couple of months God impressed it upon my heart to reach out to one of my foster children's biological parents. After going through the appropriate channels for permission, I was able to get a letter out recently--our first communication in 11 months. I heard it was received with tears.

I didn't know if God intended to open a channel to ongoing communication, or if it was to be a one time letter, so I went with a basic introduction, high level update on the girls and encouragement that redemption is a gift offered to everyone--no sin was too great for God to be waiting on the other side with outstretched arms for a future of healing and hope.

That 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of copy paper was scrawled out between the daily loads of her babies' clothing in my laundry room and bathed in prayer. Honestly, it merely scratched the surface of all the words I have for this parent and those of others we have had in our home.

In the last year as four foster children have lived with us for periods of time ranging from 10 days to 11 months, I have pondered all the things I would want to say to their parents, if given the chance.

None of these children arrived via a typical adoption scenario where I would express gratitude for their parents' bravery in placing these children in a situation where they could have a more secure life. These children were all involuntarily removed for various reasons--often combinations of metal health, neglect, incarceration, substance abuse.

Many of my imagined conversations were full of frustration and anger. As children weep uncontrolled, angry tears that I cannot fix, suffer panic attacks, experience nightmares--or take out their negative emotions on me I disrespectful ways-- I have less than loving thoughts.

I wish I could video the gut-wrenching tantrums and take them to high school classrooms with the message: THIS is the cost of drug addiction, domestic violence, living a tough gangsta life..
I cannot look at an arrest record in the paper without thinking about the number of children each mugshot represents. My mind reels with questions I want to shout:
How could you do this to an innocent child?
What drug/man/hurt/crime was worth missing tucking your baby into bed at night or watching them master something new?
How does it feel to know someone else is rocking your crying child, being gifted their artwork and receiving their goodnight hugs and kisses?
Why can't you get it together for your babies' sake?

When compassion wins, I am saddened by just how deeply imprisoned in sin/illness/addiction/past hurt these parents must be--because who willingly endangers or neglects a child? It is from this place I can genuinely pray for restoration and healing. I know THIS is the place from which I must serve--despite how emotionally messy it can feel.

In many ways it would be simpler to just make these birth families "bad" and the system a "good" savior--but if you are reading this you are old enough to know real life isn't that simple. Looking into the pasts of many of these parents I realize they are the products of abuse, neglect and painful childhoods themselves. They need deliverance from their past and healing too.

This perspective changes the way I foster parent. It leads me to pray with the children for the parents--that they would know restorative, redemptive healing and love. It also leads me to zone in on truth with these kiddos--the importance of respect for authority, boundaries, responsibility, spiritual connection, work ethic and education.

As I was halfway through writing this post last week I received a response letter from the birth parent--it was open, kind, grateful and full of hope. It also requested that I continue to correspond. My oldest foster daughter reveled in the fact that we are pen pals. I saw an immediate change in her demeanor--she became much softer and affectionate towards me. Funny how peacemaking has that effect.

And like most everything else in this foster journey, I have no idea what God is up to so I am holding on for the ride.