Tuesday, February 14, 2017

What Love Can't Do

Valentine's Day is a holiday that doesn't rank very high in my list of "things in which I place value." However, five-year-old Big Brother A has been talking about it a lot because of school. He has been placing a lot of very thinly veiled hints that I must do something special for him to prove my love.

Um, I'm feeding you and then washing these.

I'm washing, folding and putting away these.

And I'm probably picking up these, too, because I'll need you to rest more than I'll need you to put these away.

That's how I'm proving my love.

But seriously. That's not my point.

I love kids. I have always loved working with kids. People told me I was good at it when I was still a tween helping out with Vacation Bible School. I attach to them quickly, and when their lives look really hard, part of me always wants to just take them home and love all of the bad things away.

So it's not super surprising that I found myself here as a foster mom.

I always knew in my head that I couldn't just hug the bad things away, but love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres (that's from the famous chapter on love in 1 Corinthians), so my heart always wanted to try anyway. It kind of worked for a while with my biological babies, you know. My two biological children have a sense of safety automatically when they're in my arms. I started as their house, their food source, their comfort. I was one of the two who'd always answer every cry in those important first weeks. They grow up, of course, and bonding grows bigger and tougher, but in the beginning, hugs and kisses really did seem to make all the bad things go away.

Not so with foster care. We had to fight for the bonding. We had to keep giving hugs and kisses to babies who pushed away, stiffened, and cried louder, hoping that one day it would click. It did click for Baby S. He went from being our biggest crier and our most difficult to comfort, to being our biggest smiler and the one most longing for hugs and kisses.

We fought hard to earn his trust. And then he was taken away. And he learned that we aren't trustworthy.

And my oldest learned that people we love go away and that grown ups sometimes don't take care of their children.

My love wasn't enough to protect my children. I could not shelter them from these awful things.

Now we have Baby S back, but we can't go back to the days when snuggles make it all go away. We can't take away his memories of being sent away and not being brought back. We can't undo all of those long months of not being properly nurtured. We can't magically catch him up verbally, socially, emotionally, physically, mentally.

We cannot protect him.

Every part of me longs to be the band-aid that makes his life all better. I want to be the band-aid for Big Brother A, too, to fix the instability and frustration he experiences as he struggles through loving his brother but also feeling (justifiably) that life as a five-year-old was probably better before Baby S came back. I want to be the band-aid that tells my baby girl that she can trust this new one and that he won't ever squash her. But I can't be those things for my children.

All of the love in me wants to not just protect, but shield. And I cannot.

Josh and I chose to pursue foster care with full knowledge that it would change our biological children. We knew that there would be lost innocence at an early age. We weighed the costs and made a decision. I still stand by that decision. But we are not unaware of the baggage we are fixing on our family.

We pray that these difficult things would make our children's love for Jesus stronger in the long run. But sometimes, it's hard not to feel like a failure as a parent. My love can't fix it.

My love can't even fix me. My love for my children doesn't take away my selfishness. I still want to go out with my husband for a long meal without the kids; but when I do, can I admit something? I'm ready to turn around and go back out for another date as soon as I'm home. Life is really hard, and love is costly, and sometimes I have love left but not the energy to use it right. Sometimes I don't respond to my husband or Big Brother A in conversation because I'm selfish and I'm focused on loving me when I'm tired and frustrated.

My love isn't going to cure our situation. It doesn't guarantee a recovery for Baby S. It doesn't mean he'll definitely get to stay here. It doesn't make my heart stop being selfish. It doesn't take away the baggage of exposure to hard things for my two bio kids. It doesn't catch me up on laundry or dishes, either.

My love, although all I have, starts to feel so inadequate.

But my love is just a picture. It's an imperfect picture of the love of someone who isn't selfish, and therefore is able to actually love fully. It's a shadow of the beautiful love of Jesus, who gave everything for me. I mean, everything. Not a lot of hours of sleep, or changing diapers, or a difficult labor, or tough love to a biological parent who's pushing away. EVERYTHING. His entire life. His fame. His followers. Heaven itself.

Only to get it all back and then offer it to me, even though I wasn't his yet. He loved me before I loved him, and he loves me fully even though I love him with so much brokenness.

I can't fix the difficult things my children experience. I can't be their band-aid. I can't shield them, on Valentine's Day or any other day of the year, from the hard fact that love is painful. I can't guarantee that being back will take away the damage of the ten months away for Baby S. I can't protect him from the lingering doubts that we'll leave again. I can't protect me from the lingering doubts that he might leave again, either.

But I can be the person who wades through this mess with my children. I can offer what protection my shadow of love can give, while prayerfully pointing them to the real thing. The love of Jesus won't shield them from bad things, either, but he can protect what matters most - their hearts.

I can pray, today and every day, that glimpses of Jesus in me would help steer the hearts of my babies toward Jesus. And I can keep loving with my whole heart because Jesus loves me - first, still, and always.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Daily Bedtime Countdown

Life is pretty crazy right now. No, honestly, crazy doesn't fully describe it. Overwhelming probably hits closer to the mark. Josh and I are a little overwhelmed.

We're overwhelmed by Big Brother A's needs right now. He's got these incredible shining moments where we're so proud of the big helper he is, so full of compassion and love. But then, for every one of those, there are multiple really awful moments where we wonder if we've ruined him by making life too hard. (Also, he's dramatic because we're dramatic. Obviously.) Sometimes, he's the hardest out of all of them. But then there are these incredible moments where he comes in and encourages me when I'm ready to throw in the towel and let the three little ones go Lord of the Flies in the living room while I rock and eat chocolate in the bathroom. We see glimpses of who he can be, and we try to use a lot of prayer, grace, love, aaand sometimes yelling to help him see that, too.

Baby Gigi is, you know, a baby. She's an adorable little six month old who doesn't get quite enough practice sitting or rolling because she is at risk of being squashed on the floor pretty much all the time. She's starting to scream (she learned that from Baby S) when she gets a toy taken away. Or my glasses. Or my hair from her tiny but SUPER strong clenched fist. She is joy and sunshine and love, and she gives me motivation. A thousand times a day I thank God for this gift of sunshine. And then I pray that she will never walk. And then I pray no, God, I didn't mean that, but maybe let her be just a little on the slow side. Because I'm not sure how I'll keep up with another one!

And Baby S. Oh, Baby S. We are SO glad he is here. So glad. Don't doubt it for a second. (I'm telling you and us.) But life is really crazy hard right now. He's making incredible gains, but he has a very VERY long way to go still. We're fighting so hard. Every little piece of gain that you notice was bought at a price, for him and for us. I am very proud of him for his hard work. But along with those gains and his growing comfort in our home come some behavioral regressions, too. This is typical. There's so much more involved for him than just a learning disability. Sometimes the people in his life forget that. There's the trauma of being shuffled between homes. He was developmentally younger when he came back to us than when he left. I'm always half joking that he and Baby Gigi are going to learn to talk and potty train together. He has the tantrums of a child just learning to use words and realizing that they don't always get him what he wants. But try telling that to a very tall, very strong two-and-a-half-year-old. He's super fast and has no fear of danger. So he just runs, in whatever direction, at any moment, at full speed. And this is why we don't bring the kids anywhere.

Running away and screaming in public is exhausting.

Except when we do, because I realize we're all missing out and we need to train him and let Big Bro have fun experiences. Josh and I joke that these kinds of outings are "nightmares from which there is no waking." That might sound dark. I told you, we're dramatic people! But it is pretty rough. And usually ends with Josh and Baby S waiting in the car while I try to finish off whatever it is we were attempting with Big Brother A, which gets derailed because I also have a six-month-old strapped onto me, who occasionally needs to eat, sleep, or have her diaper changed.

I'm not saying this for sympathy. Life with three little ones is hard, period. For all of us who are there now or have been there in the past. I hear it only gets harder as they get bigger! Or at least, a different kind of hard. I believe that. The emotional "hardness" of Big Brother A is much harder than the physical "hardness" of not sleeping because of Baby Gigi.

There are also beautiful moments. These are refilling. I try to drink them in extra deeply because the tired seems to run pretty deep some days. Those are the moments when I'm upstairs grabbing someone an extra pair of pants (someone is ALWAYS pooping, you know), and I see two kids' bedrooms upstairs with a toddler bed, a twin, and a crib, and I stop and breathe in how right it is to see those three here in this house together. It's when Baby S grabs Baby Gigi by the toes and says "ee!" (feet!) and then they giggle together. It's when the boys and Josh are wrestling on the floor under the green blanket. It's even when we're leaving a failed attempt at a family event and I look back at all of the little ones contained in their carseats, and I am satisfied because this life and all its ups and downs are exactly what I want.

Sometimes I hide in the basement (Big Bro can open gates so he finds me) or in the bathroom (but Big Bro always has to use it when I'm there). Sometimes I pause for an extra moment on the stairs (but then Baby Gigi cries louder and I have to run down to make sure no one is sitting on her). Sometimes I have a second - or third - cup of coffee (it takes me over an hour to get to it, though). Basically what I'm saying is that there is no relief some days. There's no real rest. No down time. No brain-turned-fully-off moments. God is much stronger than me and he keeps filling me in the times when I think I'm beyond being fillable.

But sometimes I long for bedtime. Sometimes, I read the last book and shut the last door, and I sigh a great big sigh of relief, grab myself a nice big bowl of ice cream, and shut my brain off in front of the tv with my husband. We call it a date because actually going somewhere feels harder than staying in together right now. I go to bed a little too late and I think I won't possibly have the energy for tomorrow.

But then I do. Because God is so good. I am so weak and he is deciding to use me anyway. I sit here and write this with Baby S on my lap, poking my phone and the monitor for the millionth time, trying to stick a wet kazoo in my mouth, and poking my eye under my glasses which he is also trying to remove. I'm tired, but I'm glad. I'm so very, very glad for all three of my little hoodlums. I'm glad that we are the ones who get to fight this hard fight alongside Baby S. It's nothing compared to the sacrifice Jesus made for me, but it helps me to feel a little sliver of what real love and sacrifice are, and to serve Jesus by offering him this very small and very imperfect picture of what he offers me. Ô (That weird symbol was from Baby S. I'm still not even sure how he did it.)

The days are so very long. The countdown to bedtime is all too real. But the weeks are pretty quick, and from Sunday to Sunday I can see how incredible the growth is in all three of my babies - and in myself, too. We're getting through a day at a time. The hard fight for progress will go quicker than I realize. Someday, I pray, by God's grace, I will look back on this time in disbelief because it's too hard to imagine how far Baby S had to come. It's already like that when I think back to his arrival. He's a fighter, and a sweetheart, and a firecracker. He's a ray of sunshine in our lives and a wrecking ball in our home, and he's growing me in a lot of painful and amazing ways. I can't wait to fully realize someday how God has worked in each of us, all five, through this amazing daily battle to bedtime.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

A New Year and God's Story for Baby S

Resolutions for the new year don't really go very far for me. I've learned that, if it's not something I'm already working on, then I'm probably not going to change simply because it's a new year.

I've been doing something else the last few years instead. I've chosen a word for the year. It's either something I need to work on or a theme for the year. My word for 2015 was hope. We were in a constant state of maybe-Baby-S-is-leaving. We knew leaving wouldn't be the best thing for him. Sometimes it was hard to trust that God had the best in mind for our little guy. So I fought for hope that year. My word for 2016 was joy. We knew Baby S was definitely leaving and it was hard to feel gladness or joy in our circumstances. I struggled for joy even when very good things happened, like finding out Baby Gigi was coming or moving into our first house together. I didn't want to just SAY that God works things for his glory and our good; I wanted to FEEL it deep down. Joy.

A new year starts tomorrow, but my new word started 43 days ago. My word for this year is redemption.

My prayers for Baby S shifted around two months ago. We knew his circumstances would create long-term challenges for him, but the things I was hearing from Birth Parent were becoming more and more dire. They were weighing heavily on me. I realized that my prayer for Baby S needed to change. It needed to get deeper. God hasn't chosen to spare Baby S of hard things in his life, so I need to realize that he has a plan in this. My prayers for Baby S shifted to pleading with God to use these very hard things in Baby S's life to shine his love for our little guy. I started praying that God would speak his love and power so loudly in our lives by walking Baby S out of this incredibly tough place and into healing and wholeness, and that his wholeness would be all the more beautiful because of the journey.

I started praying that for Baby S just a couple of weeks before we saw God move in a way that was an unmistakeable answer to that prayer. It's a start to a very long road, but we've seen such incredible growth in our little man already.


God allowed some things in Baby S's life that looked truly awful from where I'm standing. But I believe and I can SEE that he is going to use those things to make Baby S's life story even more beautiful. I believe someday Baby S will talk, and the wonderful things he says will be even more incredible because once he didn't have a voice. I believe his beautiful smile and joyful spirit will be an encouragement to many people, and his amazing positivity will be all the more impactful because of the negative circumstances he's walked through. God is going to take those very hard things and redeem them for something so beautiful that an easy life couldn't have had the same impact.

Such a beautiful gift to have all three of our little ones safe and sound this Christmas!

There are still no guarantees for Baby S's long term future with us. There is a strong possibility of him being here forever, but if we've learned one thing from foster care, it's how quickly things can change. (Remember how we finally accepted two and a half months ago that Baby S wasn't coming back? Remember that we were all ready to re-open for a new foster care placement only TEN DAYS after Baby S came back?? Things change SO fast!) I'm not walking into this year more naive than I was last time we had Baby S in foster care. But I can see that God is already starting to redeem these rough couple of years, and I am so ready to watch his work this year. We're not even in 2017 yet, but his redemptive work has already taken my breath away and I am incredibly excited to see God continuing to move.

Our non-verbal child who wouldn't make eye contact is looking, and laughing, and starting to say words. He's joyful. He wrestles and teases and loves to play chase! He trusts that we'll come back for him. He sleeps in his big boy bed all night long, gets up too early, and then snuggles every morning. He finds me to kiss his boo-boos and then runs away all better. He's working so hard and making so much progress. That's after six weeks, guys. God is so good, and his work in Baby S is so beautiful. This year is going to be incredible.

I can't wait to soak in God's redemptive work in Baby S's life - and mine - in 2017.

Friday, December 16, 2016

A Month With Baby S

We're two days away from a month of Baby S back in our home.

I'm not sure exactly how to describe this situation that we're in right now. It's very complicated and confusing for everyone involved! Imagine what the service providers and daycare provider must be thinking... having a strange person suddenly bringing in the child every day, and oh yeah, also calling herself "Mommy". So many levels of weird! We are doing all of the parent things but he's not legally in our care in any form. We are waiting day to day, hoping for some certainty of what our future together will be, but there's been very little communication on this front lately and the wait feels very long.

We have been saying for a long while that if Baby S came back, we'd need a lot of help. We weren't wrong! When he first came, the best description I can come up with is "wild." He felt like he needed to do dangerous or naughty things to get attention. He didn't like it when I nursed Baby Gigi and went through his list of things-that-make-Mommy-get-up each time. He vaulted over baby gates like they were nothing. He climbed out of his crib up to 18 times each night before falling asleep. He threw his food from the table. He barely communicated.

It has been a long month, but oh so rewarding. I was in awe this morning as I got myself ready for the day while the two boys played upstairs. Baby S is already a different child than he was a month ago. He is laughing, adventurous and so very goofy and sweet. He is starting to trust that we'll come back for him. He loves his routine. He's sleeping almost 12 hours a night. He's eating like a champ, except the things he won't touch, because he is, of course, a 2-year-old. He's still so busy, but it's so different than when he came. He's active, not lost. He's exploring, not disconnected. He makes eye contact and communicates with a variety of noises and signs and sometimes even words. He snuggles and he SITS AND PLAYS. I can't even tell you how huge that is.

The first few weeks of Baby S here were beyond tiring. He's worth it, but I'm just taking a moment to honestly reflect. We were "on" every moment of every day. There were so many safety concerns because of his strength combined with his lack of boundaries. There was a struggling 5-year-old trying to figure out where all of our attention for him went and feeling frustrated that all of his games were getting plowed over and ruined. There was a confused 4-month-old who was used to being held all the time and wondering (usually with a smile) where that small person came from who seems to speak her language! There was a frightened evil cat, constantly ready to attack ME because she was always getting chased by Baby S but refused to take it out on him. There was no refuge in nighttime, because again, Baby S could climb out of the crib and escape out of the room within seconds. That meant my husband sleeping on the floor in front of his door while Big Bro A slept in our room with me and the baby monitor. We felt like we had things barely wrestled into some form of order only when both of us were in the room. We could barely give each other breaks to use the bathroom!

But we had so much help in those crazy times. We had family who all chipped in together and made such a drastic difference for Baby S while we visited them Thanksgiving week. We had friends bring over meals, help with Baby S so I could feed Baby Gigi, offer to help shop, come over to wrap gifts, stop by with extra clothes for Baby S (who came with literally ONE shirt that fit him)... I could go on. We even got some anonymous encouragement in the mail.

Sometimes things are really too hard for us. Sometimes things are really more than we can handle. I'm so glad we have the amazing community that we have. I'm so glad it was already in place when the hard, crazy stuff hit. We are not exaggerating when we say that we could not do this without our support network. You guys are all so awesome. Thank you! Not everyone is meant to do foster care, but everyone has a role, and we are so very grateful for those who have taken that role and helped us to do what we've done with Baby S.

The future with our big guy is as uncertain as ever, but at the same time, I'm more convinced every day that it's totally in God's hands. This boy has such a bright future ahead of him still. His delays don't have to stick. I don't believe they will, if he's given the right opportunities.

And oh yeah, we have an adorable, thriving, chunky-thighed four-month-old. Have I mentioned adorable? God super blessed us with this mild, sweet, happy baby. He knew we'd need all of our energy for Baby S and he gave us the most amazing new baby. We are so blessed!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Time to Walk the Walk

I am a genuinely selfish person.

And this isn’t one of those humble self-deprecations that I’ll turn into a win for myself so you can praise me for pushing through despite how hard things are.

Let’s avoid that. My pride doesn’t need a boost.

The last few weeks have been a new level of chaos in our lives. Baby S, our former foster son, has been with us as his mother fights through some chronic medical conditions that make caring for him very difficult.

Time to walk towards the mess!

His behavioral and developmental delays are exhausting and the consistency required to effect lasting change in his life is daunting. He needs nearly constant supervision. He has little fear of our set of stairs that he can only navigate safely in one direction. He can open locks and is interested in seeing what’s outside the house. And his curiosity has no limits (think hot ovens, pots of coffee, the microwave, our fridge, every closet, on top of every piece of furniture, etc).

Walk towards the mess.

He’s almost two and a half and has a half dozen signs and words. Miscommunication is rampant and frustrating for everyone. The temper tantrums escalate to “glasses knocked off your face” with some regularity. (And few things get my blood boiling like seeing my wife take a hit to the face.)

Walk towards the mess.

The tantrums know no boundaries in time or space. They don’t happen all the time, but when they do happen it’s quite a sight. I have yet to discover a scenario more humiliating than a full-on temper tantrum in the middle of the crowded lobby at church while I’m trying to talk to someone I haven’t seen in a long time. (Nevermind, the grocery store is worse. At least at church I’m surrounded by people who love me.)

Walk towards the mess.

The toughest bed time was the evening I slept on the floor outside the boys’ room so I could stop him every time he got out of his crib. Sleep took two hours and 18 hallway tackles (you start counting when the absurdity gets to such insane levels that all you can do is laugh).

Walk towards the mess.

We don’t know what the future holds. He isn’t in our home through foster care, but because we genuinely love him and his mother and want to help in a tough season. We’ve seen significant developmental progress even in these few weeks, but the potential exists for all of this to vanish as he eventually heads back home and we share parenting responsibilities.

Just walk towards the mess.

That’s been the battle cry of our family for the last few years as we’ve navigated this foster care journey. Simply repeating it to myself to calm the tension as things get harder stopped working last week.

I don’t know what I expected would happen when we started all of this.

I think I assumed that walking towards the mess would be hard, but that things would work themselves out because we were doing something so sacrificial and noble. Then things got really hard and I started looking for excuses to pull out and make it stop.

Our five-year-old big boy is responding negatively and we are seeing some of his worst behavior. 

The emotional baggage is weighing heavily on my wife. 

My four-month-old baby girl isn’t getting the attention she should to help her grow and flourish.

It’s getting harder to get and stay ahead on emails and projects in ministry.

See what I did there? Lots of very noble excuses that demonstrate my care for my work and family. Those are easy tickets out of a hard situation and nobody would question them as valid reasons to step away.

And when I look at it from my wife’s perspective, it gets even worse. Over the last few weeks, she found out she was taking care of a thirty-year-old man-child in addition to the three younger than six.

All of this has brought out one very real and sobering truth about myself...

I’m willing to walk towards the mess just so long as the praise I receive outweighs the inconvenience of that sacrifice.

That doesn’t sound much like the Jesus I claim to know. Knowing we were undeserving, He still went through the trouble of showing up in the middle of the mess of humanity only to be eventually slaughtered by the very people he came to save. He agonized over this on the evening before His death, pleading to be released from that path, but submitted to what needed to be done. He was not ignorant of the weight of what was happening. And He was deserving of praise long before

Paul, a man who lived in the first century who saw the risen Jesus and who was friends with people who were friends with Jesus, wrote about this so clearly:

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”

Now that’s walking towards the mess.

And I can barely get over myself long enough to help my boy who needs some love, some rules, some consistency, and a night watchman outside his bedroom.

Thank God His grace is bigger than my shortcomings, because I have plenty of those...