Tuesday, September 9, 2014

September



This is the first week that finally feels like fall.  The mornings are cool and crisp and I take a blanket out with me when I have my quiet time on the patio in the morning.  My potted mum from Costco blooms on the deck right beside my Chaco sandals, covered with wet grass from when I went out earlier with the kids to blow bubbles and stomp rockets and pull up a few random weeds.

I can’t shake the feeling of someone standing up after a bad fall, gingerly touching their bruises, and then looking around perplexed at where they are and how they got there.  On the surface I felt content, settling into a happy and comfortable fall rhythm, but beneath flows an undercurrent of feeling hurt and displaced.

When our foster baby left in early July, it came as no surprise.  I had grieved and feared his leaving for months, and when he did leave, it was such a gradual shift that in some ways it wasn’t as horrible as I had expected.  It was so anticlimactic it would have made a terrible movie.  I packed up the clothes in his dresser and sent those away one day.  Another day I boxed his toys.  Eventually I emptied our kitchen cupboards of baby food jars and Similac cans.  I did all those things and I kept breathing and we kept seeing him for visits.  Only last week we put his car seat and high chair in storage—easily accessible, but not always visible.

But when he left in early July, I feel like I entered some kind of free fall.  The weeks after he left were filled, rather incongruously, with fun.  Late July and early August were the most fun part of our year.  We went boating with my family on Lake Anna, twice, lazy days of wading on the shore, relaxing in the shade, yelling “faster!” as the inflatable raft skimmed along behind the boat.

 
We went camping, also with my family, and we played mini golf and Laser tag, and went swimming every day twice a day, then down the water slide, on the hay ride, to the flag raising and the craft times, and then at night around the campfire to roast hot dogs and marshmallows and fall asleep in our primitive cabin.

In the little time we were home, the kids had daily swim lessons beside one of the best playgrounds in the area, so every morning we would meet our friends there, first enjoy the swings and slides before it got too hot, then swim and eat our lunch on the way home, rest, and wake up the next morning to do it all again.


We went to a pony farm, and the kids rode ponies and fed the animals and played with friends.  We went to Chick-Fil-A Cow Appreciation Day, which is basically like a summer holiday for the kids, to dress up like cows and enjoy free food and play in the play area about as long as they like.  We went to the county fair and admired the crafts and saw the animals.  The kids each selected one ride, then David watched a little of the tractor pull, and on our way out we found a building just for kids with balloons and crafts and toys.


We drove to South Carolina to visit Ben’s family and managed to have a wonderful week despite Elanor getting rotavirus.  We visited the zoo and the kids ran around looking at the animals, especially the pink flamingos and the elephants spraying themselves with mud.  We read stories and watched movies and ate delicious food.  We went to the lake and waded and swam and had a picnic in the shelter.  We went to a museum with a delightful dinosaur exhibit that the kids wanted to walk through twice.


Our summer was just like Shauna Niequist’s description in her book Bittersweet:

“The idea of bittersweet is changing the way I live, unraveling and re-weaving the way I understand life. Bittersweet is the idea that in all things there is both something broken and something beautiful, that there is a moment of lightness on even the darkest of nights, a shadow of hope in every heartbreak, and that rejoicing is no less rich even when it contains a splinter of sadness.

“Bittersweet is the practice of believing that we really do need both the bitter and the sweet, and that a life of nothing but sweetness rots both your teeth and your soul. Bitter is what makes us strong, what forces us to push through, what helps us earn the lines on our faces and the calluses on our hands. Sweet is nice enough, but bittersweet is beautiful, nuanced, full of depth and complexity. Bittersweet is courageous, gutsy, audacious, earthy....

“This is what I’ve come to believe about change: it’s good, in the way that childbirth is good, and heartbreak is good, and failure is good. By that I mean that it’s incredibly painful, exponentially more so if you fight it, and also that it has the potential to open you up, to open life up, to deliver you right into the palm of God’s hand, which is where you wanted to be all along….”

Our summer was bittersweet.  Sometimes I wondered if it was even healthy to be doing so many fun things right after we lost our baby.  But I really think it was.  We needed to celebrate the family we still had.  We needed something to cushion those weeks.  Was I trying to escape the grief?  I hope not.  Our vacations naturally fell at that point in time, and our kids really needed to do something fun.  Grief went with us wherever we went, but so did joy—it was bittersweet.

I felt like I was in free fall until August when we were through with our adventures and I landed.  I was home, with two kids, and even though it was mid August, it was the beginning of fall because school was starting and every week one more thing fell into place to fill our new rhythm.

I realized I had no idea how to mother just two kids at home.  I could do school with David well enough, but Elanor walked around the house simply lost, looking for a playmate and someone to mother and scold and love.  The floors stayed remarkably clean.  Mealtimes only took half as long and were half as noisy.  I would sort laundry into baskets and think, “That’s all there is?”  Everywhere, in everything, we felt the absence of noise, of mess, of happiness, of chaos, and now just the quiet routine of what was left.

On the surface we looked once again like the ideal family size—one boy, one girl, well spaced—but that didn’t account for what felt like a gaping emptiness we took with us wherever we went.  At Costco Elanor used to ride with him in the cart, and she didn’t want to be alone, so now her dolly Jenna flopped beside her, which needless to say was not the same.  The normal question, “How many kids do you have?” became hard to answer.  Sometimes I say two and sometimes I say three.  Foster care makes life so complicated.  Legally I have two.  I birthed two.  I love three.  I cared for three.  I pray for three and hold three in my heart.  I totally know how to do three.  Two feels weird.

David got an “About Me” worksheet to complete, and the family space asked for the number of his brothers and sisters.  I held my breath a little, giving him no prompting and wondering what he would do.  He said cheerfully, “Well, I’ll put zero in the brothers space because I don’t have any brothers!  I have one sister, though!”

I walked over to the kitchen sink and remembered in the spring when one of his teachers first met our foster baby and asked, “Is this your brother?” and I said, “Kind of, he’s our foster baby” and David surprised everybody by shouting, “Yes!  He is my brother!  And when he leaves, I’m leaving, too!”

And I think about that zero on that worksheet and I think, he is healing, and this is good.  Elanor is healing, too.  She asks about him several times a day, but she asks happily like he is a good friend who will soon come to visit.

Last week when he was here, crawling crazily around looking for what he could destroy in the dining room, I was sitting at the table, and it hit me—we did have a choice with him.  We never had the option of adopting him, and if we had, we would have in a heartbeat, but he did come with a choice.  We could have said no, or we could have said yes for a year.  And I am so, so glad we said yes for a year.  Investing in his life is one of the most worthwhile things I’ve ever done.

Now we are ready and waiting for another baby.  Two calls have turned out to be false alarms.  In the meantime I am busy—busy as two kids, a part-time job, and a church community can make you, meaning I am busy but not as much as I was last year this time.  I feel that emptiness, and I’m wanting to meet the Lord in it, and to wait for whatever, whoever, comes next.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

You Can’t Argue with Experience: Talking past Each Other on Facebook



I love how Facebook helps me connect with people, share ideas and questions, and read interesting posts online.  But I’m increasingly hating all the Facebook drama.  I just don’t think Facebook is the best place to have a truly meaningful conversation.  And I’m tired of complete strangers arguing with surprising bitterness through comment threads—not just on Facebook of course, but blogs, too.  Even Robin Williams’s recent suicide has become the context for people tearing into each other online.

What is wrong with us?  Why are we talking past each other so much?  So many times we’re not really listening or understanding, just taking a sentence from someone we hardly know, if at all, and jumping all over it.

I think one of the reasons is that we are unknowingly trying to argue with someone’s experience—with beliefs they hold not just in their mind, but way deep down in their gut because of what they have been through.  No argument is going to sway them, but it will call forth a maybe surprisingly emotional reaction.

For instance, in my teen years I was exposed to the patriarchal fringe of the Christian home school movement, and if you don’t know what patriarchy is, I’m so happy for you.  Because of that exposure, and the frustrations and resentments I felt as a teenager, I’m opposed to patriarchy not just in my mind but deep down in my gut.  Whenever I see a post about it, or comment about it, what I’m thinking is flowing from my memories.  You are never going to argue me into thinking something else.

But if you don’t know me well, you don’t know that.  You just see my two-sentence comment, and then someone else responds, and someone else responds, and we have no idea where people are really coming from, but we fight it out anyway.

Another example: through our recent work in foster care, I care a lot more about substance-exposed infants, homelessness, racism, drug use, child abuse, abortion, poverty, the list goes on.  I hope my thinking on these issues is researched and logical, but beyond that, my response to them is honestly emotional, at times almost visceral.  My beliefs about these things come from way deep down because of a baby I love.

I don’t think it’s weakness for our emotions to get involved with our convictions.  God created us as emotional beings, and that’s a good thing.  We should have logical arguments we’ve carefully researched and worked through, and if we attach a lot of emotion to the conclusion, so be it.  That emotion springs from memories and experiences that make us who we are.

But online, you don’t fully share those memories and experiences.  Sometimes we just lack the space; sometimes those things are confidential or too personal or vulnerable to share online.  Our conversations are necessarily incomplete, and they can turn really nasty.

I remember reading a blog post written by someone who seemed to have a fair bit of animosity toward HSLDA.  I don’t always agree with HSLDA’s positions myself, but I was curious about this person’s background, so I clicked on the “about” line on her blog.  I learned that for her, the label of “home schooling” had meant a childhood of abuse and academic neglect, and that one day while hiding under a table with her sister, she had promised that when she got older she would fight to make sure this didn’t happen to other children.

You can’t argue with that experience.  I’m not saying there’s never any such thing as true and false, because of course there is.  I happen to think home schooling is a good educational option that parents should be free to choose, and right now I’m choosing it.  But, if I’m going to argue with this author online about whether academic neglect is really a problem in home schooling circles, I am never going to change her mind and I shouldn’t try.  She’s experienced it.  She knows it can be a problem.  If we stop arguing, maybe our experiences can enlighten each other.

We are all wounded, and I don’t say that condescendingly, it’s just that we’re all hurt through life.  And we all have our own dreams and desires.  What we say has a backstory.

So maybe before we attack someone online, we should pause and think, “What are this person’s goals and dreams in life?  What were their parents like?  What was their childhood like?  How have they been hurt?  Why is this issue so important to them?”

That’s why I wish sometimes we lived in a time period where if you wanted to have a conversation with someone, it had to be over the dinner table.  As you’re serving the soup and passing the butter for the bread, you could ask someone these questions and find out where they’re coming from and why.  You might disagree, but hopefully you could talk about it without the silverware becoming offensive weapons.


Of course there are people you couldn’t have as dinner guests because it would be a dangerous or at least unhealthy violation of boundaries.  I get that.  But I think having some dinner guests could be mutually beneficial.  Maybe as your lesbian friend is helping clear the table, you might still hold your prior convictions about homosexual activity, but the LGBT movement would now have a face and a name attached to it, and you would have more sympathy and understanding.

Maybe you could actually ask someone in person, “When you made that statement about suicide, did you really mean it like it sounded?  Have you ever experienced mental illness?  Can I tell you my story?”

Maybe you would learn why your friend is so opposed to vaccinations—or so committed to them.

Maybe you would figure out why someone is so cynical about politics or law or journalism—or so excited about it.

Maybe you would find out why your friend loves or hates home schooling or courtship or church attendance or mission work or fill in the blank.

Maybe we wouldn’t even change our minds through the conversation, but we could change our tone and broaden our view.

I know of course having everyone over for dinner is impossible, but at least we can bring that mentality to our online conversations.  This is another human being with hopes and dreams and hurts and backstory.  Let’s be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to wrath.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Foster Care: Broken Pieces, Beautiful Story



In blogging about my grief, I face two challenges.  One, I need to be careful of the confidentiality foster care requires.  And two, I don’t want to draw unnecessary attention to my particular sadness.  We all have lost, or will lose, and there is no reason why anybody should be focusing on my specific pain.

I write primarily because it helps me process and it helps me heal, something I desperately need right now.  That means if no one reads this very long and piecemeal post, it will still have accomplished its purpose.

If you do read it, my hope is that it will help you to have greater awareness of what it means to be a foster parent, or really to engage in any ministry where someone suffers loss, so that you can give greater support and sympathy to those you know in the thick of it, and even consider pursuing a similar calling yourself.

* * *

“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
~ Psalm 34:18

* * *

I remember last summer when he first entered our home.  It was nearing 10:00 at night.  We had only a couple hours’ notice.  Incredibly tiny, he lay asleep in his carseat.  We signed the papers and the social worker left, and we watched him lying there, still sleeping.

Elanor unfortunately was not sleeping.  At 13 months she was going through a stage of sleep trouble, and she joined Ben for a late-night trip to the grocery store to buy formula and diapers, since he had arrived with very little.  The baby slept on, so after Elanor fell asleep, we went to bed ourselves, only to be wakened in a couple hours to give him our first bottle.

In the morning, David stumbled sleepy out of his room and did a double-take.  Ben sat on the couch bottle-feeding a baby that had appeared out of nowhere, while I was busy preparing breakfast.  Soon after the phone calls and appointments and visits started.  It was our new normal.

* * *

“If You’re all You claim to be,
Then I’m not losing anything.
So I will crawl upon my knees,
Just to know the joy of suffering.
I will love You enough to let go.
Lord, I give you my life;
I give you my life.

“When did love become unmoving?
When did love become unconsuming?
Forgetting what the world has told me,
Father of love, You can have me.
You can have me.”

~ Sidewalk Prophets

* * *

I remember learning that I would probably lose him.  It was early December in the late afternoon, an unusually warm day, so I was at the playground with my children.  I was standing in the playground parking lot when I found out.

I kept breathing in and out while my children played.  We walked home.  I told Ben.  He was about to leave for a church event and the kids needed dinner and we couldn’t process it right then.  We talked about it more later and fell asleep feeling numb.

Was it the next morning or a few mornings later that it snowed?  I looked out at the falling snow already drifting on the ground.  I had woken up in tears and it kept snowing and I kept crying.

* * *

“I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable.”
~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh

* * *

I’m going to call him Little Mister now, because he’s not really our foster baby anymore.  He’s hardly a baby anymore.  And I want to make space for another foster baby to come into our family.  Little Mister is one of our nicknames for him.  As is Buster Boo, but that one really makes no sense.

To be honest, it drives me crazy that I can’t write his name online or post pictures.  I totally get why that is not allowed in foster care.  My mind gets it.  The writer in my heart wants to write his name because it is one of my favorite names now.  It is so beautiful that I wish you knew it.  And I won’t even get into what you are missing not seeing his picture.  He only has one of the best smiles in the world.

* * *

I only miss you when I'm breathing
~ Jason DeRulo, Breathing

I don’t like the lyrics of the rest of the song since I think it represents an ultimately unhealthy response to grief.  But those haunting lines I love.  Yes, that is true.  I only miss him when I am breathing.  I only feel that absence, that hole dug out of my heart, all. the. time.

* * *

I remember weaning David at 12 months, and Elanor, at 20 months.  Each time I felt like it should be an important event, but it wasn’t really.  It just slipped by.

When they were born, I was breastfeeding around the clock, probably for a total of eight hours a day or more.  It defined my life, those hours in the rocking chair where I could finish a book in a day and bond more deeply with my baby than I had thought imaginable.  Most times I loved it; occasionally I didn’t.  I wish I had known how truly short-term it would be.

Because life changed.  Soon it was taking me a week to get through a book, since they were nursing faster and less frequently.  Then they were eating solid foods.  They were crawling.  We nursed twice a day.  Once a day.  Every other day.  Hardly at all.  One day we stopped and though I felt it, they hardly noticed.

It was like that, losing Little Mister.  I wanted a gradual transition, and that was what I got, thankfully, though at times I felt it was killing me.  The transition took a few months, all spring and into summer.

At first he was gone for 24 hours.  I packed his bags.  I worried all day before he left.  I felt achingly empty with him gone.  But any mother can handle 24 hours away from her baby, and I got used to it.

And then a weekend.  Then a long weekend.  Suddenly I am his daycare, all day, Monday through Friday.  We are all getting used to this, and the gradualness is healthy for him and for David and Elanor.  We start talking about him like he is a friend who sometimes comes for a visit.  How nice that we get to see him tomorrow!  Like a frog in water that is gradually heating up, they hardly notice what is happening.  That he is about to leave.

* * *

 “Why are you in despair, O my soul?  And why have you become disturbed within me?  Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him for the help of His presence.”
~ Psalm 42:5

* * *

I remember the day he left.  In a way it was such a normal day.  I had Bible study that night, and the next day we were going on a boat trip.  David and Elanor were all excited about the boat trip.

I knew it wouldn’t be the last time we saw him, that we would have a visit again next week.

I also knew as the afternoon wore on, I felt physically ill.  I was busy.  Taking care of three little ones is always busy, and I was trying to pack up his toys to send with him, and I couldn’t find one of the pieces to his boat.  I still can’t find it, and it bothers me.

David trailed him down the stairs to the door as he left.  “Do you know he can say a few words now?  He can say my name!  Goodbye, Little Mister!”

* * *

“There will be a day with no more tears, no more pain, and no more fears.
There will be a day when the burdens of this place, will be no more;
We’ll see Jesus face to face.”
~ Jeremy Camp

* * *

I knew David would have a hard time with his leaving, but I wasn’t counting on Elanor’s response.  For a year she had been the middle child, with a real-life doll to bottle-feed and play with and otherwise mother.  Now she is the baby again.

She keeps crawling around the house.  She found a bottle the other day and started sucking on it.  She even tried to get into the stuff beneath my desk, like he always did. 

She talks about him several times a day.  The other night she was crying in bed, “Little Mister leaved!”

“I know,” I say.  “But we’ll see him in a few days.”  We are counting down those days.

* * *

“He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.  He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.  Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord.”
~ Psalm 40:2-3

* * *

I remember picking him up for a visit the first time, a week after he left our home.  We found the place, parked the van, and all went inside.  David and Elanor were curious and ecstatic.  What is this place like?  Where is he?

He was sitting in a highchair, eating banana.  When he saw me, he started to cry.  I know his cry, and it was an angry cry.  I don’t know why he was angry.  Was it that they took away his banana to pack him up?  Was it that he hadn’t seen me in a week?  It was like his cry was yelling, “Where have you been?!”

He kept looking at me and crying while they wiped him up, and cried until they handed him to me.  I was briefly in tears, and David and Elanor were smothering him with hugs.  The people there watched, obviously a bit surprised by the show.

“How long did you have him?  Since a newborn?  I could never do foster care, it would be so hard!  At least you can visit him!”

We planned to take him swimming, but he did not want to splash in the water.  He would rather keep his arms around my neck.  I didn’t mind a bit.

* * *

“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows….”
~ Isaiah 53:4

* * *

Stepping into the foster care world introduced me to a new level of hurt.

I’ve learned that though my specific situation may be unusual, my loss is in no way unique.  Maybe this sounds weird, but I feel at times like I have joined a community of everyone who has grieved.  It’s a really big community, that will eventually include everyone.

Grief is normal.  Even losing a child is normal.  In 21st century America we’re somewhat insulated from the number of tragedies that have struck throughout history and even now around the world.  But still we all, at some point, lose.

When someone says to me, “I could never do foster care.  I could never lose the baby,” I understand that response, but I also feel a bit bewildered.  Of course you could.  You’re human.  That’s what we do.  We all suffer.  We don’t want to sign up for it, but when it hits, we somehow make it through.

* * *

“Eventually, I am guaranteed to lose every earthly thing I have ever possessed.
~ Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts

* * *

Was it worth it?  I sat in kind of an ironic place to think about pain—beside a swimming pool in a beautiful spot in the Baja Peninsula, looking out toward the Pacific Ocean, hearing the waves sweep the shore while the sea breeze blew my face.  Was it worth it?

All I could think was, yes, yes, of course it was.  I’m a somewhat contemplative person (surprise!) and at the end of a school year or calendar year I often think back and process what just happened in my life.

This is the first time I have ever been able to look back at a year and think, “We saved a life this year.”  When I think of Little Mister and how he was when he arrived at our home, and contrast that “before” picture with how he was when he left, our work is so starkly, obviously, worth it.  So much so that I feel privileged, grateful.

I got to save a life this year.  I got to make a forever difference for someone, laying a physical and emotional and spiritual foundation for his entire future.  Of course it cost something, but what could be more worth it?

* * *

“Love alone is worth the fight.”
~ Switchfoot

* * *

Foster care can seem so random.  If you miss the call because your phone is left in the car, you may miss a placement that would have changed your life and family forever.  You may get a baby one day and lose that baby the next week or month or year.  Your friend may get a baby the next day and keep that baby forever.  Some of it is decided by people, but a lot of it is just what some would call random chance.  In the end, no human being can predict exactly what is going to happen, and no one is in control.

It can seem so hopelessly random that my only way through is by trusting in a Sovereign Lord.

I don’t wish we had gotten someone else, even someone “adoptable.”  I am glad we got Little Mister.  And at some level I can even be glad we lost him because I see good in that for him.  It is good to be wanted and loved by your birth family.  And it is good to be loved and missed by the foster family you leave behind.

* * *

“Grief changes us.
The pain sculpts us
into someone who
understands more deeply,
hurts more often,
appreciates more quickly,
cries more easily,
hopes more desperately,
loves more openly.
~ Tanya Lord

* * *

I have read that loss grows the soul, that loss brings with it on its flip side a gain.  This doesn’t negate the loss itself, since that will always be there, but it does bring with it joy and comfort.

I have felt this in ways that are difficult to describe.

In grieving, I am learning to treasure my children and all relationships more deeply.

I am learning to carve out time to rest and heal, because I am realizing that if I maintain a frenetic pace (which used to be my norm and in some ways still is), I endanger my health (physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual), and no one is served by that.

I am learning to make time to enjoy what I do have.  If we had not been losing Little Mister, I don’t know that we would have gone to see the Natural Bridge in May, gone to the Baja just me and Ben in June, or gone boating with my parents in July.  It wasn’t that we weren’t grieving, or that we were trying to drown out our grief in fun.  It was that while remembering and praying for Little Mister, we wanted to rest and heal and treasure the relationships we do have.

* * *

 “It is natural that people feel cautious about loving again because they are afraid of losing again.  Who in his or her right mind would ever want to feel such pain more than once?  Is love worth it if it is that risky? …

“The problem of choosing to love again is that the choice to love means living under the constant threat of further loss.  But the problem of choosing not to love is that the choice to turn from love means imperiling the life of the soul, for the soul thrives in an environment of love.  Soul-full people love; soul-less people do not.  If people want their souls to grow through loss, whatever the loss is, they must eventually decide to love even more deeply than they did before.  They must respond to the loss by embracing love with renewed energy and commitment….

“Still, … there is an ominous dimension to love, especially after loss.  If loss increases our capacity for love, then an increased capacity for love will only make us feel greater sorrow when suffering strikes again.  There is no simple solution to this dilemma.  Choosing to withdraw from people and to protect the self diminishes the soul; choosing to love even more deeply than before ensures that we will suffer again, for the choice to love requires the courage to grieve.”
~ Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised

* * *

We want to foster again.  Our home and our hearts have space for another child.  And I know here in our town there is a desperate need for families willing to welcome babies who have no one else.  I cannot think of a better way for us to “visit orphans and widows in their distress” or to love “the least of these.”

In our next case I hope to adopt, and I know in some cases there is probability, but in foster care there is no certainty.  I think, I hope, I’m okay with that.

* * *

“They didn’t tell us that at the beginning: The moment you let love into your heart, your heart starts breaking. The only way to stop your heart from breaking is to stop your heart from loving. You always get to choose: either a hard heart or a broken heart. A broken heart is always the abundant heart — all those many beautiful pieces only evidence of an abundant life.”
~ Ann Voskamp

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Messy House



Friends are coming to visit today—thankfully a frequent occurrence in our home.  But it also means I have new eyes to see the mess, and I’m inwardly cringing—also, unfortunately, a frequent occurrence.

The house is sanitary—I cleaned the bathrooms two days ago, Ben vacuumed over the weekend, and other than the spot in the fridge where the spinach bag is leaking, the kitchen is mostly clean.

But the house is far from magazine-cover-worthy.  Baby toys litter the floor, with the loudest ones somehow positioned right at the entrance.

A princess teacup set is scattered over the library books on the coffee table, and a diaper bag hangs over the banister just beside the dish towel.

Some of the couch pillows are awkwardly arranged; the rest are piled on the floor as the remains of yesterday’s fort, along with favorite blankets and a few books.

Half the dining room table is consumed with David’s art project.  The rest of the dining room shows signs of being Ben’s storage area as he refinishes our deck, as well as our greenhouse as it’s the best place to put plants indoors and still get sunlight, and our schoolroom with all David’s current workbooks and craft supplies.

The waffle maker is out in the kitchen from this morning’s breakfast.  Jars of homemade pickles are on the counter, beside the Similac container and the rack of drying baby bottles.  Two highchairs crowd between the counter and the island.

I could go on, but you get the idea.  There are moments, like right now preparing for guests, when I look around at all this and despair.  I am, believe it or not, a neat freak.  I’m not skilled at interior decorating, but I do like a place for everything, and everything in its place.  If I lived alone, my home would look very different.

If I lived alone.  Do I want to?  Okay, sometimes I’ll admit, but really?

Each member of my family brings their own mess to the table (literally).  Ben works from home—his office is one room I just try not to worry about!—and he loves to do projects inside and out.

David is an avid reader.  We’re home schooling him, and in addition to his bookwork, he loves to do arts and crafts, build pillow forts, and play with legos, transformers, and trains—sometimes all at once.

Elanor loves to set things up even more than she likes to play with them, I think—the tea set, the little people, the kitchen toy, sometimes all intermingled, and her favorite place to play is often on the floor right in front of the kitchen sink.

Our foster baby is crawling and loves to scatter toys far and wide, open cabinets, and leave disaster in his wake.  He’s also responsible for all the baby food jars and bottles in our kitchen, and he’s the reason you’ll find odd placements like the bathroom trash can safely stowed on top of the toilet instead of on the floor.

Sharing home with these people has made me rethink what our home is all about.

It is not about me being in control.  It’s about me loving other people.

It is not about creating a space that is perfect.  It’s about creating a space where other people can thrive.

It is not about impressing other women.  It’s about me prioritizing my husband and children, and welcoming our guests.

It is not about displaying wealth.  It’s about me opening my door to the needy.  (Though I may not feel wealthy when I look at our budget each month, compared to the rest of the world I know I am rich!)

In my home I need to push back the chaos—but I also need to foster creativity.

I need to clean up the mess—but I also need to keep my joy when the mess is made again.

I need to be okay with toys underfoot, because that means toys are being played with.  They’re never being played with when they are put away in the basket.

I need to be okay with library books on the couch, because those are the books that are being read.  They’re never being read when they’re on the shelf.

I need to be okay with the math book and markers on the kitchen island, and the dinosaur flashcards beside the paints on the dining room table, because David is learning and making art.  He’s never going to randomly pick up and learn from something that’s in storage.  (On a side note, I originally envisioned our school room being in the basement away from our main living area, and though I still hope to do that someday, it doesn’t work for this season in our lives.  David needs to be doing school right where the rest of us are living.  It’s working great for his education and not so great for our interior design, but I need to choose my priorities.)

I need to be okay with the waffle iron on the counter and the dishwasher being full again, because that means we had an amazing breakfast.

I need to be okay with pickle jars on the counter and tools on a shelf in the dining room, because that means my husband has space to do his projects and feels like this is his home, too.

I need to be okay when a friend comes over and sees my mess, because that means I’m more concerned about being authentic than being impressive.  Maybe it means I spent more time praying and planning for our conversation than I spent cleaning up.  Ultimately I want a welcoming heart more than I want a spotless home, and sometimes (often?) I need to choose between the two.

I still have those cringing moments, like today, when I’m preparing for guests and realizing how far my home is from the pages of Better Homes and Gardens.  But I am learning more to replace that cringing with confidence.  My home is a place where children thrive.  My home is a place where life and learning happens.  That life and learning makes a mess, but I want it to be a happy mess I’m willing to share with others.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Foster Care: Finding the “I Can”



One thing I’ve heard from multiple people, that makes me hesitate every time, is this: “I could never do what you’re doing.  It would be too hard to lose the baby.”

Sometimes I hear a similar sentiment phrased as a compliment, “You are amazing.  Foster families are so special.  They do what normal people could not do.”

I would like to challenge these statements.  (Though if you remember saying something like this to me, I love you and understand!)

What drew us to foster care was the opportunity to care for needy children (I’m being careful not to say orphans, because not all needy children are orphans).  We had had a heart for needy children for a long time, and most doors of caring for them—such as adopting internationally, or becoming a Katie Davis in Africa, or taking a long missions trip somewhere—were currently closed to us.  One door that was open to us, as a family with young children, was opening our home to needy children in our own town.

Call me naïve, stupid, whatever, but I never considered the hard part of losing them.  I was just excited about the local opportunity.  In our training class, they never mentioned the grief and loss inherent in foster care (something I’ve talked about with them since!).

So the first time someone told me, looking at the baby I had not yet bonded with, “I could never do this because it would be too hard to lose them,” my internal response was like, Right.  That.  I hope that doesn’t hurt too much.  Too late now!

Over the past several months as I’ve walked through the grief of gradually losing a child I love, I’ve heard the comment many times.  And I keep thinking, Do I have some special baby-losing ability that is supposed to make this easier?  Or some high emotional pain tolerance that enables me to go through what other people couldn’t?  I don’t think so!

I am a completely normal person.  Specifically, I am a very sensitive person who values relationships with people and bonds deeply with those I love.  So many times these past several months I have thought, I can’t do this!  I just can’t!  But that denial doesn’t magically make the situation go away.  The only way out is through, doing what I thought I couldn’t do.

I also have told other people (or thought), I could never do what you’re doing.  For instance, I’ve thought that about military wives whose husbands are deployed for a long time.  I imagine what their circumstances would feel like—being a single parent all day and through bedtime, going to bed alone every night, being the only adult in the home, trying not to worry, trying to keep a marriage strong with someone on the other side of the globe.  In my imagination it is so difficult that I immediately shrink from it and say, “I could never do that!”

But do I assume that it is any less painful for them?  That they have special powers that I don’t?  That they don’t ever cry into their pillows at night and say, “I just can’t do this any longer!”

When we look at someone else and say, “I could never do that because it would be too hard,” we are in danger of dismissing their pain by making them into a superhuman that they are not.  It’s just as hard for them as we imagine it would be for us.  In saying, “I could never do that,” we are selling ourselves short.

We are selling God short.

The truth is we can do anything God calls us to.  Our callings are different, obviously.  But all of our callings involve pain.  If we shrink back from a calling primarily because we don’t think we could handle the pain, perhaps something is wrong.

The verse, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” has become so cliché I almost hesitate to quote it.  We know it’s true that God enables us to do what He calls us to.  He tells us that His strength is made perfect in weakness.

But what does that look like?  Does that mean our weakness goes away?  That it doesn’t hurt anymore?

I don’t think so.  Somehow God’s power is glorified in our weakness.  When He calls us to do the hard thing, it’s hard, and it kills, and we feel like we are dying in the middle.  And at that moment when we feel like we are dying, if someone says, “Wow, you’re amazing, I could never do what you’re doing because it would hurt too much!” that doesn’t really help.

Because it does hurt too much.  And we can’t do it either.  Until somehow we find ourselves on the other side with an aching heart and wonder how we got there.

Recently I heard someone teach on John 15 and the analogy of the vine and the branches.  He said too often we interpret those verses as, “I can’t do anything unless I abide in the vine.”  He thought a more accurate interpretation of those verses was more positive: “If you’re a Christian, you are already abiding in the vine, the Holy Spirit is in you, and you can bear fruit!  Go do what you can!”

So when I see someone suffering, I want to think something like this instead: That must be really painful.  How can I help bear their burdens?  And if God calls me to, I know I can—and will—go through something like that, too.

Friday, June 27, 2014

A Day in My Life


I always enjoy reading about other people’s daily lives and routines at home (maybe that’s because I’m nosy?!), so in a desire to be authentic on this blog, and to record for my own memory what this season is like, I thought I would write about a normal day at our home.  In a way there is no normal day, but for right now, today (Tuesday, June 24th) is about as normal as we get, so here goes:

7:00     On Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, we wake up at 6:30 to exercise, but today Ben and I “sleep in” until 7:00.  I had a little bit of insomnia last night—nothing bad, fortunately—but still it is hard to wake up and I end up hitting snooze until 7:15.  Then I wake up and do a few push-ups, Kegels, and stretches.

7:30     By this time David is awake, and Ben has started him listening to the audio Jesus Storybook Bible, his daily morning quiet time.  In the meantime, I enjoy cold brew iced coffee while having my own quiet time in the family room.  Right now I am reading through Genesis and the Psalms, but soon I’ll be starting Beth Moore’s Bible study on James, which I’m really excited about.  Verses that are meaningful to me today are from Psalm 36: “How precious is your steadfast love, O God!  The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.  They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.  For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.”

Part way through my quiet time, David joins me in the family room to read Boris and the Monsters, mostly quietly.

8:00     I usually try to be showered and ready for the day before we get Elanor up, but today that didn’t happen.  We always go in to wake Elanor a 8:00.  On her own she would sleep who knows how late.  It’s always tempting every morning to let her sleep in further, but we’re having bedtime trouble as it is.  So I go in to wake up my princess.  This morning she wants to stay in her crib for a little while with a sippy cup of milk, but at least she’s awake.  This gives me a chance to wash my hair and face, while David outside the bathroom door loudly narrates Boris and the Monsters complete with commentary and questions.

8:30     Time to diaper Elanor, set out clothes for David to change into, quickly check email, and get everyone in the kitchen to start breakfast.  Our fridge has been broken for the last 2½ weeks (including 1 week when we were out of town).  Fortunately we have a fridge downstairs that is still working.  This morning the technician comes back with the part we need.  Ben already put everything from the freezer into a cooler to defrost everything, and by now he’s heading downstairs to his office in our basement to start work.  I start David on a Language assignment while I scramble six eggs.

8:50     No sooner are the eggs scrambled and served than our foster baby arrives.  He is in a transitional period where he spends nights and weekends with his family, and weekdays with us.  I walk out to our driveway to get him and his diaper bag.  He’s filled his diaper on the way here, so by the time I get him changed and in his high chair, the eggs are cold.  I don’t eat much hot food these days!

9:00     David takes a plate of scrambled eggs to Ben in his office, and everyone else eats eggs upstairs while I make strawberry smoothie in the blender.  We love smoothies in the summer.  Our foster baby eats scrambled eggs and strawberry smoothie along with the rest of us, but it takes a long time to spoonfeed him every bite.

9:30     The refrigerator technician arrives.  While he tinkers with the fridge, David and Elanor finish eating and start getting a little wild.  I finish feeding the baby and wash the breakfast dishes while giving the kids frequent corrections to try to keep them in line.

10:00   Time to get the baby down to play, brush the others’ teeth, and take Elanor potty.  I can tell she needs some special attention this morning, so on a whim I pull out our alphabet flashcards.  She learns the letter A and we put together a song to the “Farmer in the Dell” tune: “The letter A says a …”  She is beyond excited to be learning the alphabet and wants to go downstairs and show Daddy.  I guess this counts as her first official day of preschool.  I am hoping by the time she turns 3, she will have learned all her letters and sounds.

10:30   Elanor stays downstairs to play with toys.  Her playing quietly by herself is a new thing, and though it doesn’t last long, we sure are grateful!  This gives me time to do some school work with David.  We just finished David’s first Kindergarten year at age 4, doing only 2-3 days of school a week.  This upcoming year we’re going to do a little more school each week, but I also like doing school during the summer, so that we can keep a flexible schedule year round.  Late June and early July are quiet for us, so we’ll have a few weeks of normal school routine before we start swimming lessons and go on a couple vacations in late summer.

David and I read his handouts from VBS last week, then the book Leading Little Ones to God, and finally a DK Eyewitness Reader Winking, Blinking, Wiggling, and Waggling.  We have an entire shelf just for library books, and I’ve found a major way to save money home schooling (at least so far) is to borrow a lot from the library.

11:00   The baby’s been playing happily on the floor this whole time, but now he’s getting tired and ready for his nap.  I put him down just as Elanor decides she is finished with quiet play.  She needs another potty time, and then I start her watching an episode of Team Umizoomi, the kids’ current favorite show.  (Past favorites include Winnie the Pooh and Octonauts.)  Our tenant just got home early from her summer class, and we chat for a moment while Elanor’s movie starts.  We have a split foyer floorplan; the upstairs is ours entirely and the downstairs we share with our tenant.

While Elanor is watching a movie and the baby is sleeping, David and I have more quiet school time together.  We decide to start a thank you note to Aunt Lara, since we’re taking the month of June off handwriting to write thank you notes for birthday presents.  No sooner have we planned our note, picked our color markers, and started the word “dear” when David realizes he needs to have a bathroom time.  I catch up on a couple of texts and get myself more coffee while I wait for him to be done.

The freezer and fridge are working now, so I unload the cooler back into the freezer while David writes a couple more words.  Things are still quiet and calm, so I get online to look at a fresh ham recipe I am planning for tonight.  As usual, everything unravels the moment I sit at the computer.  David manages to topple his stool over, hurting himself and waking up the baby.  Elanor’s show finishes at that moment, and she needs to go potty.  It takes a little while to get everyone stable again.  The thank you note is abandoned and I realize I had better make lunch.

12:00   Lunch today is easy, since we have leftover pasta from last night.  I serve it up, and then go downstairs to get a couple more things out of that fridge.  I’m down there for about thirty seconds, but it’s enough time for trouble to happen.  I come up to find Elanor has found a travel bottle of what looks like lotion, and the baby has the cap.  I get the cap from the baby and the bottle from Elanor, and look around to make sure there is no lotion mess on the floor, which thankfully there isn’t.  Meanwhile David is talking to me about the blue-tongued skink in his pop-up book.

Everyone finally gets settled in to eat lunch.  Ben comes up to join us for a couple minutes until he needs to prepare for a phone call at 12:30.  I am really grateful Ben can work from home.  His hours are usually 8:30 to 5, sometimes more when a big project hits, and some days are more flexible than others.

Once Ben goes back down to work, Elanor finishes eating and starts playing with Duplos—her second time playing happily today.  She’s been in a bit of a terrible 2’s, high-drama stage, so every minute of her playing happily by herself feels like a breath of fresh air.

I look up that fresh ham recipe again and start preparing the ham with onion slices and BBQ sauce for dinner.  Meanwhile, David continues his thank you note and after he writes each word, he gives the baby one cheerio.  This is the first time the baby has had cheerios and he’s doing great with him.  We are all excited about telling his family about it tonight.


1:00     Elanor’s play time has ended with Duplos all over the kitchen floor.  We clean up, and while I read Elanor a story and put her down for her nap, David keeps the baby entertained with toys.  I answer a few quick emails while Elanor falls asleep.

1:30     Now it’s David’s turn to watch Team Umizoomi.  He selects an episode, and I pull the baby up in his high chair to join him.  This gives me a few minutes to take a nap.  I started power napping when David was one, and I have found it to be so helpful.  For awhile I felt guilty about it, and then I realized that was silly.  I’m a sensitive person in a busy season of life, and I do much better with a few minutes of dark-room time in the middle of the day.

1:50     Naptime over.  I fix myself a cup of cold coffee.  Baby is showing some tired signs, so I put him down for a nap, and when David finishes his episode of Team Umizoomi, I help him begin a quiet time in his bedroom listening to an audio drama of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  I am a huge fan of audio books for children, especially as an alternative to too much screen time.  Awhile back, we set up a CD player and speakers on top of David’s dresser, and now he has audio book time every day.  He usually plays with toys while he listens, and sometimes I wonder if he is tracking more with Transformers or with Narnia, but at least he is having fun!

In those wonderful moments while David is quiet and both babies are napping, I have a quick Bible time—about 5 minutes or less to review what I read this morning and bring my heart back to center.  I try to do this every day.  Sometimes our mornings can seem 24 hours long in themselves, and I need to refocus!

Usually I spend my short afternoon quiet time on teaching work.  Over the school year I plan classes and grade papers.  This summer I’m not teaching, but I’m putting together my student workbook for the fall.  I got a fair amount done yesterday, though, so today I blog instead.  The baby wakes up in the middle—he only catnaps these days, and there are too many variables in his life for me to get him on a better nap schedule.  But he joins David in his bedroom, playing with toys while David listens to the audio book, and I get a little more writing done.

3:00     Quiet time is truly over when the princess herself wakes up.  I reassess my afternoon plan as I get her up.  I was going to take her and the baby to Costco and drop off David on the way to play with friends who live only a block away.  It looks like it’s going to take me at least half an hour to get the babies out the door, though.  This is when I’m thankful again that Ben works from home.  He can take a 5 minute break from work to drive David down to the friends’ house for the afternoon.

To care for three children ages 5, 2, and 1 can be a challenge.  So much of our lives centers around toddler/baby activities, and I am always trying to make sure that David has enough age-appropriate stuff going on.  I know he will have a lot of fun playing with friends while I have baby time this afternoon.

3:30     Sure enough it takes me half an hour before I’m backing out of the  driveway to get to Costco.  When Ben and I were in Mexico, it was a marvel how we could say, “Let’s go out for coffee” and I would just grab my purse and shoes and we would go.  With two babies, going anywhere is such a lengthy production that it is really tempting just to stay home.  Except for a day like today when we’re almost out of groceries!

Costco carts are wide enough to have two babies sitting side by side, and it is so much fun to push them both around.  Other than the moment when the baby accidentally scratches Elanor and they both start screeching, they have a wonderful time riding in the cart.  Whenever anyone smiles at Elanor, she says something like, “This is my foster baby.  He’s three.”  (Which he’s obviously not.)  No one else understands a word she says, but she monologues on about the blueberries we are buying and the cheese and how she would like another snack of veggie straws.

4:45     Finally back home!  By this point I’m pretty tired.  Ben is out mowing the lawn when I get back, which means he is having a very quiet work day.  We expected he would be busy with a major project this week, so I was anticipating he would be working every waking hour like he was a few weeks ago.  But the project is temporarily on hold, and I love having him a little more available.  He helps me bring in the groceries and then gets back to mowing.

Both babies are getting a bit fussy, so I fix them a snack of cheese and peaches while I put the groceries away and start the ham roasting in the oven.  Before I know it, it’s almost time for our baby to get picked up, so I quickly change his diaper and give him a bottle so he’ll be happy during his car ride.

5:30     After he leaves, Elanor starts playing with Duplos again, and I take the opportunity to go through mail and review our monthly bank statement.  I get interrupted in the middle when Elanor starts to fuss and David gets home.

5:45     David is ecstatic because he gets to borrow some sort of talking dinosaur toy.  He gets washed up, Ben comes in, and after pulling the ham out of the oven and fixing a quick salad, we all sit down to dinner together.  I am grateful for quiet family evenings together.  Over this past school year, we had David in soccer, gymnastics, Tball, and Awana (fortunately the sports were only one at a time).  They were all good experiences for him, but it meant that we were gone at least 2 evenings a week.  We’re in a little bit of a lull now before swimming lessons start, and I can’t say I mind more home time.

6:45     After dinner, I’m realizing how exhausted I am.  Ben takes the kids outside to pick sour cherries from our neighbor’s tree—they have extra and invited us over to harvest.  I am going to be doing dinner dishes, but to be honest I’ll admit I end up slumped over my computer looking at Facebook.  I took a Facebook fast earlier this year and I think it may be time for another one.  I like how it helps me keep connected to people, and I like the interesting links to blogs and news articles, but I find it does tend to consume too much of my time, especially when I’m tired.  I must admit though, it is nice to sit down in a quiet place for a few minutes after such a busy afternoon of shopping with the babies!

Eventually I pull myself out of my slump and manage to get the dinner dishes done before Ben comes back in with the kids.  I listen to “Broken Hallelujah” by the Afters, which I also heard on the radio on the way to Costco.  It seems to capture perfectly how I feel about losing our baby, and is one of my favorite songs right now.

7:30     Now we have a bucket of sour cherries to pit!  The kids help me get started while Ben does a little more work outside.  He’s currently in the middle of refinishing our deck.  He meant to do this in May before it got too hot, but his work was really busy then, so it’s happening now.  I love having a home and a yard, something we dreamed about for years before we moved here, but it certainly does come with a lot of work.

8:00     Ben comes in to shower while I fix the kids a bedtime snack.  We have pitted enough cherries to mix with yogurt and honey.  I use our immersion blender to turn it into some kind of smoothie drink that the kids sip up with straws while I read aloud a few stories from Frog and Toad to them.  It can be challenging to find a story that David and Elanor both like at their ages, but Frog and Toad is one of them.

8:30     Our goal is to have the kids in bed by this time, but tonight we’re just beginning the bedtime process.  It always takes a little while, especially because the kids like to draw it out, but by 9:00 they are both quiet in their rooms.  For Elanor this is actually a major achievement.  She’s been having bedtime trouble lately, and one night last week she was still awake at 11:00, fighting sleep and determined to make as much ruckus in her crib as possible.  Thankfully that’s not happening tonight!

9:00     I finish going through the bank statement I was in the middle of earlier, and answer a few texts and emails, before washing my face and changing into pajamas.

9:30     Yesterday night Ben and I started a movie about Temple Grandin, an autistic woman.  I’m not even sure how we heard about it, and I was concerned it might be a long and boring documentary, but it actually turned out to be a fascinating story.  We watched an hour last night and have an hour more tonight.  This gives us more than enough time to finish pitting cherries, and tomorrow I’ll make a cherry crisp.

10:30   We finish the movie, I look up Temple Grandin on Wikipedia, and we talk for awhile before going to bed.  10:30 is supposed to be our bedtime but we’re not that great about making it.  It takes me awhile to fall asleep again tonight—midnight again.  Insomnia is always my indicator that I have too much stress in my life, or I need to somehow cut back or think through about how I’m handling something.  Fortunately the insomnia is mild right now, but it motivates me to make time for more quiet, stay-at-home days, especially in the few weeks before our baby leaves.  For now, I’m grateful to fall asleep at midnight, knowing we’ve had a good day of getting things done and being together.