Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Too Busy For Christmas

I had a plan for Christmas this year.

I spent time on Pinterest, putting everything together in the early weeks of November. I had all of the projects and activities planned out for the daily Advent activity calendar, a tradition which I started last year with every intention of using it yearly.

There was going to be the night to drive around Rochester to look at Christmas lights and sip cocoa, the trip to the mall to see Santa (we know he is pretend in our house, but we like to play the game), the Polar Express movie night, the yearly tradition of making and delivering cookies to the neighbors. There would be the making of nativity props and the retelling of the Christmas story together, the hours spent reading Christmas books and lighting candles, and the playing of Christmas music and singing and dancing along together. It was going to be good. I was so excited!

Reality hit fast. Thanksgiving Eve brought an unexpected evening in the hospital with Baby S, and things just didn't stop from there. In four weeks, we had eight doctor appointments for Baby, plus the normal court date, visits with birth parent most weekdays, a case worker home visit, and a WIC appointment. Some days brought two or three appointments. I had to find someone to watch Big Bro during appointments, especially the ones that left Baby S crying in pain or hunger from needles or fasting, or the ones that took hours to complete. This often meant Josh being home during part of his workday and then working evenings, days off and early mornings to make up for the missed time. Instead of building cherished family memories as we approached Christmas, it sometimes felt like we were never all in the same place at the same time.

And so... My Christmas Advent calendar.

The three papers sticking up at the top of the calendar are the ones I actually read to Big Bro. Out of those three, we only actually did one of the projects.

 Big Bro was super excited to make "melted snowman" cookies with some friends.

My idea of a melted snowman cookie versus Big Bro's idea of a melted snowman cookie!

One activity... One event... Out of 24. Hours of planning, trips to the store, and all my imagined treasured family moments... Well, they didn't pan out. And in a "last straw" kind of a moment, when it turned out that one of the main events we were planning on attending had sold out of tickets and that we did not, in fact, have any tickets yet, I absolutely did break down and cry.

Did we miss Christmas this year?

It was so tempting to feel like we did. I wanted to let myself feel cheated out of this year's festivities, to feel bitter over all of the things that weren't working out. But...

Big Bro didn't care. He loved Christmas, even when one thing after another did not happen or happened differently than planned. When we piled up snug and cozy in our pjs under a mountain of blankets and turned on the tv to watch a Christmas movie, only to find out that ABC is definitely not the same as ABC Family (my fault)... He was totally content to watch anything else, as long as we watched together. When Christmas Eve rolled around and our oven was still broken and not able to make Christmas cookies... He was content helping me dip pretzels in melted chocolate. (Even my dumbed-down box-mix Christmas cookies were too much for us this year, guys; they're still in my pantry, untouched.) He didn't care that we didn't get to the big Christmas festival; he just wanted to play trains with Mommy AND Daddy both home at the same time. He didn't feel cheated of Christmas music or special Christmas treats. He had a great Christmas.

The only plan that worked as planned was the one that was not mine. Isn't that frustrating, sometimes, when you've tried so hard? But ultimately, the only important part of the Advent season still happened. Daddy and Big Bro read a Bible story each night, checked it off in their countdown to Christmas, and lit candles to remind us that Jesus' birth means the coming of hope and light for the world - for us. Without all of the other fluffy stuff, this nightly ritual stuck out more, and became so much more special.

Guys, I still want to do my fun little activity Advent calendar next year. I'm going to try. I love those cheesy sweet things that we do as a family leading up to Christmas, and I am still a little sad that we missed them this year. But... I don't have that feeling of regret anymore. Christmas happened. It was good. We had our focus on God this year above all else, and I cannot feel dissatisfied about the rest when that one most important thing was right. I won't feel guilty for the missed experiences.

Ultimately, nothing could have made him happier on Christmas day than spending hours playing with his new Tinker Toys!

Because in all of this, we learned that we put each others' needs before our own wants. We learned that we can work with birth parent in stressful circumstances, tight quarters, and long amounts of time, and still get along for Baby's best. We learned that we have so much support from an amazing medical team at Strong (I cannot overemphasize how awesome they are there).

And, thank God, we learned that our Baby does not need surgery. On Christmas Eve, I got the call from the doctor that the results from the previous week's five-hour-long test had come back and that the suspected problem was not there. No need to remove anything from that tiny little baby!

What an awesome Christmas gift. The long Advent season of waiting and wondering, of feeling so little control over our circumstances and constantly surrendering our fears and worries over to God, was over in time for Christmas. How peaceful and content we were to finally have closure on this long series of tests. How appropriate to feel that peace and fullness as we headed to Northridge to celebrate Christmas together with our church family.

We still don't have real, definite answers. This season of restfulness and peace, as far as it depends on Baby's health, may not last. But the taste of hope and fullness was real. And it was a beautiful reminder that ultimately, Christmas is not just a birthday, but the celebration of the end of waiting - the end of fear.

I now have a better glimpse into what Advent really means. Oh, the waiting can be so hard. The longing for hope and wholeness can be so strong that you feel it. Things are so out of our control. I want Heaven more now than I did before. I don't have control over whether Baby stays or goes; every beautiful family moment at Christmastime has that little taste of bittersweet that I try not to acknowledge. I've been reminded that even having him here, in our own home, does not ultimately guarantee me control over his safety or wellness. All I can do is love God and serve him fully, trusting that he will work everything together for his good and mine.

Thank you, Jesus, for ending the wait. Hope is here. And in my busiest of Christmases, I am able to feel my need for that hope more than ever.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas is bigger than Easter

If you're someone who believes Jesus is a big deal, the title of this blog post is intentional click-bait. Of course Easter is a bigger deal than Christmas. We don't celebrate Christmas simply because some never-cries-because-he-is-perfect baby was born to usher in peace on Earth. We celebrate Christmas because it was the first step in a plan - God's plan that would lead to the death and resurrection of someone who lived a perfect life and didn't deserve to die, so that I wouldn't have to die despite my far-from-perfect life.

Christmas points to Easter.

But for our culture at large, Christmas is a far bigger deal. In fact, the whole Christmas season gets at least a month (for those who are hardcore about a "no Christmas until after Thanksgiving" policy), and sometimes even up to to three months (I saw Christmas decorations for sale beside Halloween candy in September this year). Christmas gets loads of TV specials and holiday classics. Every neighborhood has THAT guy who ruins it for everyone else by putting up every single inflatable Christmas decoration they can find (so that people like me and my wife and kids can clog up their neighborhood on our annual light-viewing drive around town). People get time off of work to travel or be with family, and kids get huge chunks of time off of school.

And what does Easter get? Candy made out of chalk? Ugly and disgusting marshmallow animals? A few cheesy commercials with weirdly cross-bred chicken rabbits? One or two simply terrible holiday classics? And maybe a day or two off from school?

Is this the best we've got?
I see Christmas as the gateway to Easter. Jesus came to seek and save those that were lost, and he accomplished it by dying and rising from the dead. He didn't come to Earth to give us warm fuzzy feelings, but to wash away the sin that separates us from a perfect and just God. He didn't come so that we could have peace on Earth, but so that we could have peace with the creator of the universe.

I used to feel so guilty celebrating Christmas for a month and Easter for a long weekend. Ultimately, Easter matters so much more to me... but Christmas matters so much more to my culture. Is it realistic to think I can elevate Easter over this month-long Christmas celebration? Am I willing to downplay Christmas to make this possible? If I alienate myself from my culture at Christmastime, won't I throw away my chance to reach them with Easter?

I talked it over with Heather and we agreed that we don't have to compromise. We can go all out for Christmas and stretch out our countdown over a whole month -- because that's the point of Christmas!

Christmas is about waiting. It's about the build-up. It's about the anticipation.

For those who experienced the first Christmas, the arrival of Jesus marked the end of hundreds of years of waiting. They were waiting for someone to rescue them from themselves and to set them free from the oppression of this world.

Sure, Christmas didn't bring that freedom. But it set the stage and began the process.

We will celebrate Easter in a big way. It was the ultimate act of love by God toward man. But we also won't shy away from celebrating Christmas. And we will celebrate it over a month or more, to remember the anticipation the people of Israel were experiencing as they awaited their Messiah. The wait was long and the joy of Christ's arrival cannot be overstated. So we're going to unashamedly make it big!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Happy Birthday, Little One

Dear Little Baby Z,

Today you turn one. Oh, sweet little baby, I wish we could share this special day with you! We haven't seen you for eight months, but we still think about you, little one. Your strength in the face of such a rocky start at life and your ability to love my family so fiercely, so quickly, will forever have an impact on me. Despite the bad you had seen and experienced, you were still ready to think the world could be good, and that family could be good.

Little one, I hope the world has been good to you. I hope you are with people who love you. I hope being with your biological siblings has been an incredible blessing for you.

I will always pray for you. I pray first of all that you would meet Jesus in a way that would rock your world and shape your whole being. I pray that God would use the painful things in your life for his good and for yours, that you would be stronger, more loving, and more devoted to Jesus because of it. I pray that you would be spared further hurt; but also, if you aren't, that those hurts in your life will help you feel nearer to Jesus.

You were our second foster baby, but the first to stay more than a night. You were the first time we saw the physical change that can happen in a person who experiences unconditional love and stability for the first time. When you left it hurt. But you taught us that our tears are a sacrifice that is worth it, because we had you, and we were able to give you a head start on your long road to recovery. We found ourselves ready to plunge back in to help another little one because our few days with you were enough to make it worth every day we have missed you since.

"Failure to thrive." Baby, I hope that label no longer follows you. I pray that you are thriving. I hope that you are receiving every bit of love and extra attention and amazing resources that we wanted to give to you.

We love you, Baby Z, today and forever. Happy birthday, little man.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

That WIC Person Holding Up The Line... Is Me

Ready for a confession, guys?

We use WIC. If you're not sure what that is, NYS defines it as "a supplemental nutrition program that provides food and services free of charge to eligible women, infants and children." For more information, click here.

Why is this a confession? I'm not sure. We use it because it's part of doing foster care. Josh and I couldn't afford babies in and out of our home (often on special formulas) without the help. I so appreciate that Monroe County tries to take away every possible financial excuse for not being a foster parent. You don't have to have extra of anything except space, and even then, probably not as much as you'd think. (Clarification point: You don't get rich doing foster care, either. We're still in a two bedroom apartment.) We have friends not doing foster care who use WIC, too. There are good and legitimate reasons to use WIC.

We're talking $17.49 for three days' worth of food for Baby S.

But other people don't know why we are using WIC, and it is often humiliating to use WIC checks at checkout time. People are not gracious. People judge. Cashiers show attitude and make it clear that this is holding up their line. Not everyone is rude about it, but a lot more people are than I expected. There are the eye rolls, the exasperated sighs, and the people dramatically walking away as soon as I take out the checks. It's embarrassing.

I understand that processing WIC orders takes extra time. I understand because I am also waiting extra time for my WIC order to be processed, often with impatient children in tow. I apologize to the cashier and the people behind me for the inconvenience, because I understand that we are busy people.

It's not just the impatience, though. There's an attitude of judgement when people see those checks. It's almost like people need me to understand that I'm doing something wrong. They take away my dignity with their expressions and their attitudes. They need me to realize that I'm not only taking up their time, but also taking resources that don't really belong to me.

And it doesn't surprise me. I hear this attitude often enough. It comes off as politics. I'm not here to say whether or not this is a good system. And I am absolutely 100% aware that there are people who take advantage of the system. There are also a lot of people who were born into this cycle of poverty, are surrounded by friends and neighbors who are still in this cycle, and have very little support or encouragement to break out of the cycle.

I wonder, no matter your political leaning, how helpful is it to express frustration or disgust at that person in line? Maybe it's a foster parent. Maybe it's a single parent who's trying to be a good provider despite little or no support. Maybe it's a young parent who was faced with aborting their baby or depending heavily on government support. Maybe someone lost their job and is trying to regain employment. Maybe there is illness or mental health that is preventing someone from providing for their family. Maybe the parent is just starting out and needs that extra help for just a little while before getting on their feet.

But even if you're behind someone who is genuinely just trying to get out of working, will treating them like "that kind of person" really help? There are really people out there who have never had a positive support system. There are people who really don't see any other option. There are people who see themselves as incapable, have been raised to believe they are incapable, and are treated like helpless children by the very systems that are supposed to be helping them break this cycle (believe me, I've been to some of those offices...). Maybe they are so deep in the cycle that they will never be, by our definition, a worthwhile person. But that is EXACTLY who Jesus came to save. That is me in a million different ways. I find my worth in Jesus. Maybe that person in front of you in line needs to find worth in Jesus, too, before they can ever start to change. Maybe no one has ever treated them like they could have worth before, and being the first person who gives them back their dignity might open doors you don't even expect.

When I pull the foster parent card, people change. All of a sudden, I'm a hero instead of a mooch. Honestly, it's equally uncomfortable. I appreciate the sentiment but I do not agree. Baby S is a real person with a real story, with a parent who is trying and really loves their baby. I am not trying to be a savior. I am trying to reach in to the mess to help give someone a boost out of that cycle of pain and poverty because, by God's grace, I have never had to live through that myself and I have the ability to give.

The fact that people's attitudes instantly and dramatically shift when I am a foster parent and not just "that kind of person" makes me very sad. I don't think it should be this way. There are people I love who have needed WIC, and it hurts me to think of how they may have been treated. Not only that, but I am not a better person than them because I am a foster parent. A family that is holding it together and making it together should be validated at least as much as a person who takes a child from a broken home. Isn't that initial wholeness the real goal?

There was a person behind me in line yesterday who was actually nice to me while I was waiting for help with WIC checks. The person behind him saw my WIC checks and did the exasperated-sigh-I'm-leaving thing, but this man stayed. He chatted and joked about baby food. He talked about raising his own kids. He moved on to say that WIC must be such a help when formula is so very expensive. He didn't know I was a foster parent until the very end of the conversation. He just treated me like I mattered and like I was a good mom, WIC checks and all. And it stood out to me so much that I am still thinking about it today.

I don't want it to be that unusual for someone to be kind to the person in line with WIC checks. And I am going to try to make an effort not to be the veering-away-with-obvious-annoyance person. I can almost guarantee that I've been that person before, honestly. But now I'm standing on the other end, and it is not pleasant.

Maybe the person in front of you shouldn't have WIC. Maybe they should. Your reaction isn't going to change whether or not they qualify for the program.

But you might encourage someone in a way that helps give them the motivation to work through this. Because if they're using WIC, things are probably a little tight and possibly a bit tense. So please, please, try to treat them with dignity and kindness. I can now tell you from experience that it can change someone's whole day.

Friday, December 12, 2014

What Does It Mean to Share Parenting?

If you have ever talked to me about foster care or read any of my posts, you've probably heard me say that I'm so thankful for the ability to know Baby S's birth parent (yes, just one parent) and be able to work together with them. We call that "shared parenting". So what does shared parenting really mean?

Shared parenting is going to look different for each set of foster and biological families. It's going to depend on the specifics of each case, the openness of each party to the idea of working together, and the safety of all involved. So keep in mind, what I am describing as shared parenting in our experience may look totally different than it does for someone else. Here's how we're approaching it this time, with this child.

Shared parenting means that we don't think of ourselves as Baby S's only family. We recognize that he has a birth parent who is working hard to bring him home, who loves him, and who has an interest in how the big and little details of his life are playing out. When possible, we make decisions together. We ask birth parent's opinion and weigh it into our decisions. I make time in my schedule to get together with birth parent outside of normal visit hours for low-key play dates and non-stress visits so that parent and Baby S can form some fun, informal memories together. We are making an effort to spend some time with birth parent on holidays when we are in town, and we plan to throw Baby S his first birthday party together with people from both of his worlds in one place loving on him all at once.

We have a journal that goes back and forth with Baby S each visit so that we're each caught up on how Baby S is doing daily and what his specific needs will be. We share milestones with each other and celebrate his achievements together. We even text back and forth, which has been so convenient and so great to be able to connect any time for the good of Baby S. We are so totally blessed to have that level of open communication, and birth parent has always been so respectful about having the ability to contact us.

Shared parenting means we go to doctor's appointments together. It means Baby S gets to have a family history recorded in his medical records when I would have had to fill in each space with a big question mark. It means I know information about the first weeks of his life that I would not have known otherwise. It means his baby book has pictures and information starting from the very first day of his life. There are pictures of him with birth parent and pictures of him with my family. It means, as far as it depends on us, that he will always see us and birth parent as a team of people who are working together out of love for him and a desire to see his life work out for the best.

Shared parenting is investing in a child together as a team.

There are so many positives to shared parenting, and I 100% mean it when I say that I am so very, very thankful that we are blessed with a very positive relationship with Baby S's birth parent. But let me also acknowledge now that sharing parenting can be difficult, too.

When my husband and I first moved to Rochester, we spent a lot of time with couples who had grown up in Rochester and still had family in the area. We heard a lot of stories about what it's like to have children in their grandparents' care a lot of the time. We heard so much gratitude for the help, love, and insight given by grandparents. But we also heard a lot of people recognizing the fact that it can be so hard to have Grandpa and Grandma involved in the big and little moments of daily life. So when I say it's hard, picture it something like what you might experience if you're trying to involve your own parents in raising up your children.

Shared parenting means two groups of people who both have a very real claim on the child's life. Both groups of people have, hopefully, invested heavily in the child. They want what is best. But they don't always share the same opinions on what "best" means, or how to arrive at "best". Maybe they have different parenting styles. Maybe they differ on the best kinds of play, or what the child should be eating, or how the child's schedule should look. Maybe they have very different ideas of what is cute or stylish, for clothing or hair. You get the idea. Everyone has their own opinion, and they have reasons to believe they are right. Something that is not a big deal to one party might be a huge issue to the other. When you respect each other, you try to work together to arrive at something everyone is comfortable with. But ultimately, the final say can fall with just one party.

So shared parenting can be tricky. While the child is in foster care, those daily decisions are made by the foster family. Sometimes, with big things, the birth family makes the final call. Of course, the definition of what is big or little isn't up to us. For example, according to our training handouts, foster parents can make the call on "little" decisions like who the child dates, but not "big" decisions like whether a child goes on a field trip or gets their ears pierced. I'm sure much of the final say depends on how each particular case worker interprets the situation.

It's hard to make a decision that you know the other party won't like, that you think is for the good of the child. It's hard to make the little decisions, knowing that the big ones won't always fall to you. Two groups trying to parent together will never line up fully. Even two parents in the same household, who've had lots of practice working together and learning to love each other, can struggle. So shared parenting is sometimes just plain hard. There are moments of frustration and miscommunication. It can be a struggle.

But it really is worth it. It means a long-term investment in a person who most likely could benefit from community and support. It means an investment in the child's future, if the child goes back to birth family, since they will decide how much contact - if any - the foster family will have with the child. It means the amazing ability to pray for someone and love on someone who will almost always mean the world to your little child, no matter what the past. Helping to foster a loving, positive relationship between our foster son and his birth parent is one of the most amazing gifts we can give him, no matter what the future holds for his long-term placement.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Unexpected and I'm Thankful

Thanksgiving is the calendar's way of forcing us to find a few moments for introspection, specifically with regard to all that we have to be thankful for.

This time around I find myself reflecting more and more on how the trajectory of my life has been so dramatically altered over the last two years.

The journey is hardly ever a straight line...

A few months shy of two years ago, I had every intention of spending a long career in science. I had published a number of papers in good journals, including a chapter in a technical book, and I had good prospects for jobs post-graduation. The goal was a position at an undergraduate university teaching and doing research. I enjoy working directly with people, teaching,  and science, so it seemed to be a perfect fit for my passions. I had applied for federal funding for my work and had interviewed with multiple labs about possibly joining their research.

Around this same time, I was approached with the idea of joining the staff at my church (Northridge Church, in Rochester, NY). I had joked for years about my desire to step out of science and into ministry, so watching these two passions competing with one another in my heart was overwhelming.

Then I got the letter about my proposal for federal funding -- my proposal had been rejected. That proposal was my ticket to jumping right into teaching. Now the only path left was to do a post-doc, where I would be doing research for a few years, before I would get another shot at a teaching position. And the worst part was that I would have to leave Rochester, and Northridge, because most of the opportunities for work in my field were not in the local area.

The decision was very hard. But eventually I agreed to apply for the ministry position and began the interview process. I worked through this while I wrapped up my dissertation writing and defended my work to earn my Ph.D. in Biophysics. I was hired and began my new career in ministry a few weeks after I was awarded my degree.

Mixing passions and finding new ones. I miss working in science. I truly do. But I've had incredible opportunities to mix some of my passions in my new position (e.g. leveraging my science and statistics backgrounds to help our leadership make informed decisions).

The Raspberry Pi on my desk might give you the impression I'm in denial.

And I've had opportunities to further ignite passions that have laid "dormant" to some degree because my research work had limited how much time I had available to focus in those areas.

Throughout all of this, my wife and I were able to pursue our desire to involve ourselves in adoption by beginning the foster care process. We would not have been able to do this if we were moving every few years because of new work opportunities.

Doing what I love with those I love. I am incredibly thankful for the role I play on the staff of a growing church that is in the business of leading people into a growing relationship with Jesus. I come to work every day excited about every opportunity I have to help people learn about their savior!

And I love everyone I work with. They are all passionate about our common mission and it is exciting to work somewhere where I can genuinely call all of my coworkers friends and where we care for each other as family (as my brothers and sisters in Christ, we ARE family in a way that blood relationships can only dream of achieving).

If you had asked me two years ago to describe where I would be in two years, I never would have described the scenario that has unfolded before me. God. Is. Good.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

No Free Photo Calendar

Every year I look forward to making my family a photo calendar.

Last year around this time, we were finishing up our initial foster parent training course and waiting excitedly for our certification and that first phone call for a placement. We didn't know what to expect. We didn't know who would end up in our home, or for how long. It was possible that the first call could end up being for a forever child, all nicely and neatly; possible, even if unlikely.

So I felt a little weird about our photo calendar last year. We were getting certified to take in a child as old as age 2. What would they think about all of these things with Big Bro A plastered all over them, when our little foster son wasn't included? If we were planning the arrival of a new bio baby, we probably would have gone ahead without a second thought. After all, they would be many months away from caring about the pictures on the wall. But a bigger kid might get it right away.

I went ahead with the photo calendar. It turned out beautifully. I love it. There's a different verse for each month. There are verses about faith, and suffering, and thanksgiving, and orphan care. Verses that I thought might encourage us through some of the dark days of foster care.

Every year I wait for my free photo calendar credit from an online site. I just got mine today.

And I suddenly don't want to make a calendar this year.

I opened my photo gallery and stared at it for a minute. I scrolled through half a month. I looked at some beautiful pictures of the boys dressed up together for Halloween. I don't know if I can do a photo calendar this year.

The months are ticking away. Time passes so quickly with a baby in the home, even when each day can sometimes feel so long. The date they mentioned as "probably the earliest Baby S would go back to birth parent" feels sooner and sooner all the time.

I can't make the calendar, because I don't know if he'll still be here. I don't know when he's going to leave. I can't make a calendar without him in it. I can't just stop including him in that month when he might go. I can't stop having him in there partway through the year. How would I feel that first month I flip the page and he's not there? And yet - how would I feel if he leaves in the spring and by December we're still getting that fresh monthly reminder that there's another empty place in my heart that won't be filled in this lifetime?

Maybe it's a silly thing to let a calendar trip me up. I know I'm going to want pictures of him all over the place if and when he goes. I'm going to cry every day and every night for a lot of days and a lot of nights, and I'm going to hug the things he hugged and cry at the things he laughed at. I know that won't change no matter what is on my wall. I'm going to go back through my photo galleries and look at his pictures and videos over and over and let them become treasures as I celebrate and mourn my little one's return to his birth parent.

A calendar just seems to ask for certainty. It speaks of plans for the future. And we don't know. I feel powerless to plan this next year. I feel helpless as the month approaches. I trust God and I surrender it to him daily - hourly - every time we get frustrated with the system - every time we reach another baby milestone - each time Big Bro A is the best and sweetest big brother in the whole world. I truly believe in God's ability to use Baby S's situation for his good. I even believe that God's ultimate good does not always have to equal the safest, most stable childhood environment. I am willing to give that possibility over to God and willing to walk that road with him when it comes.

My calendar celebrates stable blessings in my life. I do not have stability in even those dearest treasures anymore. This might be the year we finally ditch those paper calendars. It's not exactly a necessary tool anymore.

But even if I pass on the calendar, the pain of the ever-approaching month will remain. And Baby Z's first birthday is fast approaching. Baby M's arrival and subsequent leaving anniversaries will be approaching soon after.

One of Big Bro's favorite things when he is sad is remembering that there are no more tears in heaven. There is no heartache, no hurt, and no uncertainty. There is no change. There is no more wrong or even ability for me to do wrong. I won't mess up and I won't have to wonder anymore. I'll have answers. I'll have Jesus. And whichever of my family follow after Jesus - I'll have them, too.

I love his sweet reminder of this beautiful promise. With each baby that leaves, I know there is one more little ache in my life that is not entirely a bad pain. It's a reminder. I'm not home yet. I'm hurting because this world is hard, and painful, and there is sadness and sin and sickness and neglect and abuse and death. But God's promise is that this is just a tiny blip in my forever, and when those little aches become more intense, it's just a stronger reminder:

Look forward to home. Home, where family is forever, and wholeness is the only option. I was never whole without Jesus anyway. These heartaches help me remember that. But one day I will be. I long for that day.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Vermonter In Me

I love Rochester more with each passing year. Josh and I have shifted many of our plans and dreams for the future in order to stay in this city and remain part of this community for the long term. I don't know what the future holds, but I would be totally on board with raising my children here, and having them look back on Rochester as home.

But on beautiful October and November mornings, when the yellow and orange leaves from the park near my home are blowing past my kitchen window, I stop and think back to my Vermont roots. I can't honestly say how much my little home state has changed these past few years. But when autumn colors make me homesick for Vermont foliage (nothing compares with Vermont colors in the fall), I can't help reflecting on the Vermont I remember - on the pieces of Vermont I miss, the pieces I was glad to leave behind, and the pieces I hope to pass on to my children.

Try not getting homesick when this was the view from your front porch

I miss sitting by the lake in the early morning, reading or writing in my composition notebook. I miss sitting on the swing near the woods and just taking in the changing leaves, the summer green, or the spring sound of running water in the little brook. I miss fishing with my mom and eating the fresh venison my dad brought home during hunting season. I miss walking our little dirt road on a rainy day when the road mushed beneath my feet and there were little orange salamanders to be caught and loved and guided safely out of harm's way. I miss knowing who was in each car that passed and having neighbors stop to say hello as they drove by. I miss knowing everyone on my street. I miss being able to wander away on a grand exploration of the woods for a whole day as a child without ever worrying about coming across someone who could harm me.

The woods just down the dirt road from my childhood home

I miss jeans, t-shirts, hoodies and sneakers as acceptable everyday wear. I miss maple syrup and creamies and thinking cheddar was the only kind of cheese. I miss filling up the bathtub before a storm in case the power went out (really, I do), and the cozy feeling of a meal cooked by candlelight over the wood stove when the power did go out, sometimes for days. I miss family and friends who used to live minutes away and now live hours away. I miss being present for extended family gatherings where we could enjoy each other's company, laugh at each other's quirkiness, and gorge ourselves on our favorite family dishes. I miss the joy of going out for a drive just because, and feeling like an insider because I could navigate the dirt back roads and knew just where all of the potholes were.

Our own little dirt road leading to Echo Lake

And there are things I don't miss. I don't miss the distance between things. I don't miss being so far from a grocery store that we needed to bring a cooler in the summer, or extra sleeping bags and snow pants in case the car broke down in the winter. I don't miss watching the garage burn down and wondering if it's going to take out the house, too, because it's taking forever for any of the three closest fire stations to get a truck out to our remote home. Or worrying that, in an emergency, an ambulance would not arrive until too late. I don't miss the poor quality medical care we came across too frequently. I don't miss the lack of growing, young, vibrant churches. Or the difficulty of socially navigating those awkward childhood and preteen years with small class sizes, like a class of ten in fifth grade (actually, the ten included our entire combined class of fifth and sixth grades). I don't miss the lack of positive activities to engage in when it's too cold to even go sledding. I don't miss the lack of diversity. I don't miss frost heaves. (Okay, I do miss those a little. Once they hit a certain level of awfulness they become a little funny.)

Winter on the lake

My children aren't growing up as Vermonters, but I want them to feel like they still have a part in the state I grew up in. I want them to love flannel and plaid. I want them to feel comfortable in sneakers and hiking boots. I want them to reach for their rain boots and rain coat on a wet afternoon and leave their umbrella behind because they care more about feeling the raindrops than keeping their hair dry. I want to pass on the importance of a home clean enough to be comfortable and lived in enough to be welcoming. I want them to love digging in dirt and throwing sticks and rocks into the water. I want them to chase bugs. I want them to stare out the window in wonder and joy at the changing seasons and every kind of weather. I want sticks to be their favorite toys. I want them to love kayaking and being outdoors. I want them to be the kind of people who value those get-togethers where everyone chips in, and who aren't afraid of a "potluck" because it's about togetherness and not about offending people by asking them to bring something to dinner.

Beautiful Echo Lake

I love Rochester. I am amazed at how different the culture can be here at times, in the state next door to where I grew up. The differences are not bad. But I also value my Vermont background.

I'm not sure that I could ever move back to little Vermont. There are some difficulties that I'm just not ready to face again - especially the difficulty of finding a growing church with other young families. But not choosing to live there doesn't change the fact that part of me is always going to be a Vermonter and not a New Yorker. Part of me is always going to be more of an "outdoorsman" than a girly girl (although, no, I do not ever intend to hunt - sorry, dad!). Part of me will always be proud of myself just for being able to drive through the city, even though I panicked no fewer than three times on the way through it. Part of me will always reach for the jeans and hoodie longingly, even when I decide they're not appropriate that day. Part of me will never cease to be amazed that I can get to a great grocery store in under 5 minutes. Part of me will always have a sneaking suspicion that my day was wasted if none of it was spend outdoors. Part of me will always remember that deep down, I'm a Vermonter; and I'm okay with that.

Public service announcement: Part of this post was brought on by my finally switching over to a 585 number. It's been a good run, 802. I already miss you a little bit.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Adoption matters. Period.

Don't mix up my intentions. I don't care about adoption because I do foster care. I do foster care because I think adoption is incredibly important.

Every single follower of Jesus should care about adoption as well.

This sweeping declarative statement stands firm on scripture. See Ephesians 1:3-5:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will...

Can you see the significance of adoption in that statement? Not only did God, in love, set in his mind to adopt us, but he set that in motion before the creation of the world. John Piper even goes so far as to say adoption is greater than the universe. God's act to create the universe was a first step in his ultimate plan to expand his family by adopting billions of new children. The created universe serves as the backdrop for the ultimate love story.

Creation exists as the stage for God's pursuit of the spiritual orphan.

Because adoption matters so much in our vertical relationship (with God), it stands to reason that reflecting God by adopting those who have no family should be a high priority.

It represents the greatest picture of God's love for his people. That God would step down out of his high position and choose to care for us as his own, despite our sin and despite our mess, should be emulated on our level.

Don't get me wrong. I don't believe that every single Christian should adopt. But I do think every single Christian has a role to play in adoption. Many Christians need to step out of their comfort zone and take up the cause to adopt the many local children in foster care and the millions of orphans worldwide -- but those who don't feel that they can adopt can still play a huge role in supporting and praying for adoptive families.

Will you consider taking up the challenge to love a child the way that God loved you? Will you consider reflecting the love that is greater than the universe by opening your home to a child without one?

If not, are there adoptive families out there can you support? Could you bring them a meal? Say a prayer? Speak some words of encouragement?

Adoption matters. Period. Let's all play a part!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Darkness and Paper Flowers

Our little apartment community has gone through a lot the last couple of weeks. There were three days of uncertainty and, not to be graphic, but a growing and unsettling smell. We hoped it was nothing. Then it got bad enough that we had to do something. Maintenance called the police. An ambulance, four police cars, a medical examiner, animal control, and the apartment manager visited our apartment building over the course of a couple of hours. It was a tough, tense, sad afternoon as I waited and watched, wondering what was going on across the hall and hoping that my guesses were wrong. Thankfully, Big Bro fell asleep late and slept through the whole thing. He was totally unaware of the tension, the emergency vehicles, and the policeman knocking on our door. I'm so thankful that he missed the voices in the hallway, the remarks of the officers, and the intense smell coming into our home every time the door across the hall opened and closed.

I felt so trapped. I didn't know what was going on. I didn't even know if we were safe. I didn't want to be in the middle of it and would have wanted to take the kids and myself out of the situation if I could, but I didn't know what I'd see - or smell - if I walked out of my door and passed the apartment at the top of the stairs.

As I washed the baby's bottles, I looked out my kitchen window and saw the medical examiner removing a body from the building. Our neighbor. He had died in his home, days ago, and no one had known until the smell was bad enough that it couldn't have been anything else. Again, I'm really not trying to be graphic. It was all just so sad and so shocking. Every indication, including his recent behavior, how the police responded, and his family's reaction when they were finally allowed to enter the apartment and begin cleanup, is that our neighbor committed suicide.

Processing this has been difficult. At first, it's hard not to be selfish. I feel so sad for him. But the physical ramifications of his actions have affected all of the neighbors and his family in just a terribly graphic way. Our home didn't feel like our home for a couple of days after we realized what we had been smelling. It was hard to eat there. It was hard to sleep there. It was hard to feel joy and recognize beauty with the physical reminder of death and suffering. It was hard to know how to keep the three-year-old from asking too many questions about something that he noticed, too, when we usually encourage questions and love his information-gathering process.

My method of coping with difficult things is to try to understand. I want to imagine it, to piece it all together, and to figure out why he did this and what he was thinking in those last moments. I can't see any way of arriving where he did without intensely deep darkness and depression. I know there was a fall back into addiction, too. The crazy thing about alcohol abuse is that he could carry in his choice substance in large quantities, in broad daylight, and we felt powerless to do anything about it. I even heard his regular cab driver try to address it with him once. His fall back into addiction was not subtle. But it was legal, and we had no way to force him to slow down.

Trying to picture what happened, how he felt at those last moments, and what it still looks like across the hall took my breath away many times those first few days and left me struggling with the weight of his darkness. There were nights of trying to fight it away and yet feeling guilty that I wasn't trying to understand his burden. I have had to fight this temptation and realize that entering his darkness doesn't lessen it; it just hurts me. I will never understand; I will never be there; and I don't want to see the apartment across the hall or understand how they found him or what choices he made. Carrying this burden doesn't help him, but it does hurt me. Lying awake at night sweating with fear and anxiety does not change his situation for the better, and it makes it much harder to keep the joy and wholeness of our household. This burden is still too heavy and too dark for our little ones to share, and my diving into it does not help me to protect them.

Once the smell started fading, it became easier for me to start to shift my focus outside of myself. It's selfish that it took me so long, but it's what happened. At first I wrongly thought that selfishness would be trying to distance myself from the situation. I thought that caring meant immersing myself in what happened until I had it all figured out. Instead, the more I tried to understand, the more inwardly focused I became. Fear and anxiety does not lend well to putting others first. I've had to find distance.

It's not that I want to move on and forget this man. But I want to move past the horror and start grieving the person. I don't understand what happened in his mind in those last days, but I can look on the last two years and try to remember and appreciate who he was when he was healthier and in recovery. "Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow." (James 1:17) The joys, loves and talents in this man's life were good things - gifts from God.

Some of the flowers from the hallway window

When we moved in two years ago, this neighbor was much more himself, although still not whole. We saw glimpses of his love for beauty, his passion for art. His window overlooking the driveway was painted with a mural. The window in our shared hallway was always decorated with something relevant to the closest holiday or changing season. If there was nothing big to celebrate, he dug until he found something. He was creative, and he wanted to share that beauty with the people around him. His little garden in the backyard was full of ripe red tomatoes which he had grown and shared with neighbors. When we moved in, unfortunately, we saw the red tomatoes grow old and rot off the vine; and this summer, they were never re-planted. But there were hints that he had been fully there not long before, and that he had a love for beauty and nature.

This summer, we started noticing the alcohol coming back into his home. He'd been open about the fact that he was in recovery and had talked about his rehab program. It wasn't a secret that he'd been in some dark places and that it was such a positive thing for him to have a stable home, a job, and a support group to help him heal and recover. So seeing those 24-packs coming in with increasing frequency was painful- a definite red flag.

Then the beautiful hallway window started being updated less frequently and more lazily. The spring flowers were still there when he put up the beautiful bouquet of live flowers for Memorial Day. I eventually had to throw those out, because they were there far past their prime and seemed forgotten. The Independence Day flags went up while the paper flowers were still in the window. The candy box on the windowsill was never restocked and started to fill with old wrappers. And as fall approached and Halloween drew near, the old decorations gathered dust and the spiders moved in to the corners of the window. A red flag.

When we first moved in, he introduced himself and offered to share his grill in the backyard. So friendly and kind. But... The next week, he didn't remember having met me, much less his offer. He never really had much of a conversation with me, although I did greet him when I saw him. He'd mumble things that didn't really make sense in context. He was a little unstable. There was some concern that he had the potential to even be dangerous (not sure how to take it when the mail delivery person warns me about my neighbor). Josh had more successful conversations with him than I did. This is intentional; he tries to lead in connecting with our male neighbors and I try to lead in connecting with female neighbors. We always felt like we weren't getting through to him. We had conversations with each other, wondering how to reach him, wishing there was someone in his life to speak with authority and help him out of the darkness and the addiction. But we were never able to get through, and there was no indication that anyone else was, either. Red flag.

I promise I'm not just rambling, although partially I am still just processing everything that has been happening. It's hard to respond to suicide. My heart hurts for his family. I pray for peace and hope for them as they cope with this loss. I saw glimpses of the beautiful person this man used to be, and I hope with all of my heart that they are able to grieve that beautiful person with love and forgiveness. I hope they are able to heal.

There are two things I want to take away from this.

One: Have community. Community is SO IMPORTANT. I cannot overemphasize the value of a supportive and loving community. Don't know where to find one? If you're local, message me - I'd love to tell you about the love, support, and true community we have found in our church. I'm not just saying that to sell our church. Our community in our church is like family, and with most of our family long-distance, we have had to rely on them for so many things. They have come through for us over and over again. These are the people in my life who know who I want to be and how I want to live for the rest of my life. These are the people who have authority to speak into my life. If those red flags ever start popping up, these are the people who can stop me, check in with me, ask if I'm okay. These are people who have earned credibility in the past, who will be able to speak into my future. These are people who love Jesus, love me, and pray for me. I don't know if our neighbor had community anymore. I wish he had allowed us to be part of his community. I wonder if the darkness was already growing too thick to let others in by the time we moved in.

Two: Be community. Reach out to others. Ask your neighbors how they are. Be part of a small group of people where you know what their struggles are, where you can be real with each other. Let them see you - the real, authentic you, flaws and all - so that they can be real and authentic back. Love them through their flaws. We're all flawed. We all sin. If you've given each other authority to tackle those rough patches together, then help them to see those places where their own sin and darkness blinds them, so that, by God's grace, they can continue moving toward his beautiful, faithful, unchanging light.

Some people may not accept your outreached hand. Almost every one of the neighbors I've reached out to about this tragedy in our community acknowledged that they had known something was wrong in this neighbor's life, but that every time they'd tried to reach out, they'd been unable to get past a surface level conversation. I wish we could have helped him, but let me tell you - I'm so glad I can fall back on the peace that we'd been intentional, concerned, and prayerful about our neighbor. I'm not saying there wasn't more we could have done. There always is. We are not perfect. But I'm so glad I can honestly say that we cared and we tried. We'll continue trying to reach out and connect with our neighbors. Maybe we can have a real impact in their lives. I hope so.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

That Web of What-Ifs

The temptation to travel down the road of what-ifs has always been a strong one for me. I love to think through what would have happened, or could have happened, or should have happened. What if that person had done what they were supposed to do? What if I'd said something different? What will I do if this situation (that I just made up) comes up?

The what-if game is far from helpful. Worry doesn't change anything for the better, and dwelling on alternate realities can reopen a wound so consistently that it doesn't allow healing. Foster care, with its lack of closure and the impossibility of ever going down each of the what-if roads in real life, has helped me to realize just how painful and just how unhelpful the what-if game is. It creates a confusing web of possible realities that just can't work together.

The reminders of my boys gone home are everywhere. It can be an outfit one of the babies wore, something we bought specifically for a little one who's no longer here, or a movie we watched with one of the babies. Places we visited with them bring back memories, or even places we hoped to visit and never did. As we move forward, we'll reach their birthdays; holidays they aren't spending at 'home'; anniversaries of their coming and leaving. Because of our grief and the uncertainty in the boys' future, these reminders can easily become painful. Joyful little moments with Baby S can bring grief, too, if I allow myself to think ahead to the empty moments and future process of putting all of his precious little things away if he goes back to his birth family.

What if Baby M had stayed? We would have loved to provide that sweet little baby boy a loving forever home. We were the third home he'd lived in since leaving the hospital, and when he left us at 11 days old, he went to a fourth. I hoped to be the one to teach him how to bond and how to trust in a consistent caregiver. I wanted him to know he was treasured, loved, and wanted. We don't know anything about the person he is with now or the kind of care he receives. Unless we run into him by chance later on, we will never know how life turned out for him. I fear for him and that he will be stuck in this cycle of broken homes and families. I would have been satisfied if we could have kept him here, our first little foster baby, for the long term. But at the same time, and with the same breath, I am wishing for my other babies, too; even though him staying would have meant never meeting them.

What if Baby Z had stayed? I think back to the crazy day of picking up Baby Z at the hospital and being escorted out by security (for our safety). I think of the long days and nights of feedings every three hours, on the clock, and the joy of seeing him gain weight and become happy and alert. When Baby S arrived, a visiting nurse told me that she'd seen Baby Z since he moved from our home and that he was "getting very tall". Those three little words were enough to offer some small amount of comfort, but the little guy has a long road ahead of him. We hoped to fight for him and be the family to get him the resources he needs. He will have much to overcome because of his tough start in life, and we wanted to be on his team. I wish with my whole heart that my family could have walked that road with him, to give him every opportunity to be the most whole, complete, and loving person he can be. But, of course, we never would have met our sweet little Baby S if he'd stayed.

Baby S has been with us 2 1/2 months now. I love him as my own son and I would never wish for a life that didn't include him, no matter what happens with his future. Whatever home he ends up in, there is hope that my family can work with his bio family for the long term. We hope that Baby S can continue having two families who love him very much and both accept him as their own. Wishing for Baby M or Baby Z to have stayed feels like wishing Baby S hadn't arrived, and as long as Baby S needs us, I wouldn't want him to be anywhere but with us. And yet, I still can't be glad our first babies left.

Ultimately, the tangled road of what-ifs is not a safe place to travel. It is not a helpful place to linger. There is only one reality, and no scenario in which all of these what-if situations could take place. Baby M and Baby Z were moved to bio family. We don't even know the name of the newborn baby boy we might have had in our home if our vacation had been timed differently this summer. We learned that our Big Boy R vacation placement was moved to a new family, and we never had a chance to consider long-term parenting with him because our home was full. Some of my boys may have come back into care and gone to different foster homes because our beds were full. Their futures may never involve me. Worrying over this at night will change nothing. Being joyful in my current circumstances will not make them less likely to come home, and missing them will not lessen my love for Baby S.

Worry and regret won't change the situation for the better. But "the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective" (James 5:16), and that is a worthwhile use of my nighttime hours when I'm laying awake thinking of my boys. I can count myself righteous because Jesus covered all of my wrongs, not because of my own efforts. I would fail every time. But because of Jesus, I have the hope that I can be effective in the lives of all of my boys through prayer. Even if some of them have returned to unsafe or unloving environments, they are not without hope. Jesus is expert at healing the broken. I can't keep them from being broken, but shielding them from hurt isn't ultimately what they need. I have the awesome privilege of still fighting on their team through prayer, even if I never see them again.

God is in control, and remains so, even when he doesn't involve me. So I don't stop at trying not to worry. I pray. I pray for my boys to know Jesus and to be raised up by people who love them and who love Jesus. I pray that even difficult circumstances would turn them towards Jesus. I pray that I would be faithful to be a loving Mommy in the everyday moments with whoever is in my home, and to be a loving support to their bio parents whenever I have the opportunity.

I'm so glad I can be part of Baby S's life. I'm able to love on him every day and see him grow. He loves to smile and laugh. He loves life and he loves his family. He's such a happy little dude. Big Brother A loves him and tells him so every day. We love him like our own. His bio parent loves him and is working hard for him. This is our situation and we will embrace it. This is where God has allowed us to be right now, and through his grace alone, I will stay hopeful that he will use me here to do his work.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Baby of My Own

Anyone who's been around the foster/adopt community for any length of time knows that there are some terms that make us cringe when referring to our children. But many of you who haven't been very exposed may not even realize the implications of what you're saying. I totally understand; I don't mind the heart of the inquiry; and I try not to take it personally. I'll train my children not to take it personally, as best as I can. But I'd love to talk about why it's a big deal, even aside from the obvious reasons.

"Do you have kids of your own?"
"Which ones are your own/real kids?"
"Why didn't you just have more kids of your own?"
"Are you going to have any more of your own kids?"
"What happened to their real family?"

I know, I know, it sounds like I'm picking away at little word choices here. And there are probably a hundred thousand blog posts about this sensitive terminology issue. Totally making that number up, but seriously, it does come up a lot. So it clearly does matter and it does stand out.

I think it's pretty easy to guess why this is a touchy and painful phrase even when the question is well-meant. I don't plan to get into that.

I do want to go over why I think that this little phrase is a big deal for people who love Jesus and want other people to understand how great he is.

Every grown-up person does wrong things. Whether or not you believe in Jesus, you know that you sometimes want to do one thing, but do something else instead, something that you might later regret. In Bible terms, we call that sin, and it's what makes us not good enough for heaven. God is perfect, and nothing that is less than perfect can be around him. And so sinning people like me do not belong in God's family.

In order to make up for those wrong things I do, I needed to pay a penalty. I needed to die and remain separated from God in my death. But that was not God's plan. He allowed perfect not-sinning Jesus to take my place and my death penalty. And because Jesus was a not-sinning person, his death did not result in forever separation from God. By believing in Jesus and believing that he did that for me, I am allowing him to take my place, and as a result, I can also take a place in heaven someday even though I don't belong there.

So, although I'm not part of God's family and don't ever deserve to be, he made a way for me. The Bible talks about that in terms of adoption - God's taking unlovable, always-sinning me into his forever family and sacrificing everything through Jesus so that I can belong there.

The guys who wrote letters to each other when the church was brand new (those letters make up most of the "New Testament" in the Bible) used some very clear language when referring to God's adopted children. In fact, they said this:

In the 4th chapter of  Paul's letter to the church in Galatia:

But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law [he had to follow the same rules as everyone else]. God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so he could adopt us as his very own children. And because we are his children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, prompting us to call out, "Abba, Father" [we get to call God our Daddy!]. Now you are no longer a slave but God's own child. And since you are his child, God has made you his heir.

And in the 8th chapter of Paul's letter to the Roman church:

So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God's Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, "Abba, Father". For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God's children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God's glory.

If anyone is going to get this "your own kids" thing right, it ought to be Christians. We have experienced firsthand the amazing gift of becoming fully part of God's family when we had no claim and no right to be there. We are called God's own when we accept Jesus's invitation to be counted worthy because of the debt (my debt) that Jesus already paid. In fact, and this would be too good to be true if it weren't for God's great love for us, we are counted together with Jesus as God's heirs. Together. As his own children.

Adoption is one of the most clear, beautiful, special pictures of God's love for us that we will see here on earth. So let's make sure we don't allow ourselves to downplay God's amazing acceptance of us as fully his children by downplaying the acceptance of foster and adopted children into our families. They are not our biological children (biological is usually what people mean when they say "your own"), but biology is where the distinction should end. They are most certainly one of our family and equal in status with bio kids, just as we are somehow counted alongside Christ as heirs in a family where we were once strangers. Let's show the world how awesome it is to be wholly part of this family of Jesus by embracing the wholeness of foster and adoptive families!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Little Encourager

It is amazing to me how kids come with their own personalities, strengths, weaknesses, and gifts. God is a pretty awesome artist.

It has been such a joy to see Big Brother A's personality becoming clearer in the last few months. The hard hellos and goodbyes with our foster babies have magnified his strengths. I have learned so much about my big boy.

He's an encourager. He says things like "Good job, Mommy!" and "You're so beautiful!" He is so great at noticing the beauty in little things, especially outside. Every stick, stone, and "helicopter" seed is unique and to be admired. Every little clover flower and dandelion is a prize to be picked and shared with Mommy. I have almost missed so many beautiful things because of my business, but he helps me to slow down and notice the little beauties in God's great earth. It's almost always worth stopping to check out whatever he wants to show me.

He tells his baby brothers how much he loves them. He tries to teach and help them and tells them constructive, instructive things (no, they can't understand, but he is so sweet when he tries!).

My big guy is a source of joy and strength for me. Of course, he's almost three, and he comes with plenty of challenges. But I am able to pour into him and see the fruit of that hard work. And I am able to see how my mistakes fade away over time by God's grace.

My boy is forgiving. He is caring. He loves hugs and kisses. He tells me when the baby is crying and what the baby needs. He's actually surprisingly good at knowing!

My boy is striving toward independence. I know it is common for children to regress a bit when a new baby comes along, and I expected this with him. There have been very few moments of regression, though. Big Brother A has, for the most part, bravely attempted to do everything possible by himself. He has ungrudgingly shared his parents' time and attention with baby brothers who come and go. He talks about how he is helping them to grow and get bigger, and it is really true. All of his hard work gives us so much more to pour into these babes without having to take from Big Bro, and leaves us still with extra time to spend one-on-one with him.

I don't care if the boots are on the wrong feet. I'm just thankful that he's cheerfully putting them on by himself!

Josh and I have hoped that foster care would help to teach Big Brother compassion for others. I think I can see that starting already. I think it adds to his natural giftedness toward encouragement.

And in the dark moments when foster care feels too hard or when we've just said goodbye to another little son, our Big Brother A is a source of joy and hope for the future. He's our forever boy. He gives us hugs and speaks kind words and seeks us out when he is lonely or afraid. He sings out praises to God in a loud and unashamed voice, reminding me that we have a great God who is worthy of my praise in the good times and the hard times.

We're celebrating his third birthday soon. Birthdays are such a different thing as a mom. Suddenly, it's not about giving and getting presents. It's about celebrating one of God's greatest gifts to me. I love you, Big Brother A. You are a steady source of sunshine in my life, and I thank God for you every day.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Being the Nut Allergy Mom

We try not to make a big deal over my son's peanut allergy whenever possible. It is my responsibility to monitor my child's safety, not yours.

It is a full time job.

We say sometimes that it's not very hard yet to handle Big Bro's nut allergy since he's at home and we control everything that goes in his mouth. This is true - at least - as compared to the challenges I expect in the future.

But even so, there is not a moment outside of our home or around other people that there is not a part of my brain devoted to Big Bro's safety and the presence of nuts in his environment.

Let me give you some scenarios:

~A well-meaning stranger at a party gives Big Brother A the food I just said "no" to. He thinks he's being funny by sneaking around my rules. I have to explain to him - with grace and firmness - that he is actually endangering my child. And then I have to take the food away from my excited toddler who cries because he doesn't understand why he can't eat the muffin someone just gave him.

~A kid at the zoo eats their PB&J in the glass underwater viewing room - and smears it all over their hands, face, the windows, and the benches in the room. The parent looks on. Now looking at polar bears up close is dangerous for my son.

~Big Brother A sees garbage on the playground. He wants to be helpful and clean up and I have to grab him before he touches the peanut butter granola bar wrapper.

~A family at the spray park sits down to eat their lunch and doesn't move our pile of things before starting on their peanut butter sandwiches (RIGHT over our things). I can't dry or dress Big Brother A in those things anymore, so I have to pack them up like they're poison, dry him with my extra shirt from the car, and send him home in wet swim trunks.

Those are just a few examples, but these things happen so frequently. What do you feed your child when you're in a hurry? When there's no refrigerator? When you just want to be out for the whole day without spending a ton of money on lunch? PB&J. Some places have nut-free tables; most do not. We have to scrub the area where Big Bro A will be sitting, and if he scoots down the bench to a different spot, we start over again. And mulch/sand/dirt? Who knows if those are safe or not. It's a gamble every time.

We go to a playdate and a child has food dried on their face. Is it peanut butter? We play with toys at the doctor's office. Did the last kid wash their hands after their peanut butter toast breakfast? We go to the store and Big Bro grabs at something colorful in the checkout. Is the outside of the honey roasted peanut snack pack contaminated?

I totally understand that nuts are not poison for everyone. I really don't expect everyone to lock up their peanut butter and totally sanitize their children before going out if they've happened to indulge in any.

I try not to be all about Big Bro A's nut allergy. We do not want that to be our family identity. We definitely don't want him growing up as "The Nut Allergy Kid". We want to be respectful and understanding in our approach to his allergy and keeping him safe.

But I do often wish that the general public could be a little more aware that certain foods are, in fact, poison for some people. I know that we've come so far in the last few decades. Food labels are a great example of that. The system is far from perfect - way too much of the labeling process is still left up to the manufacturer's discretion. I do recognize, though, that this is progress.

But sometimes it's still a very scary world out there with our peanut-allergic toddler.

I so appreciate our dear friends who go above and beyond to keep Big Bro safe while helping him to feel normal. I appreciate the people in our lives who have learned about reading labels and asking the right questions when we're eating out. Many times people have brought safe snacks just for him, even when they really didn't need to. That is such an expression of love to our family, and we really do notice!

I don't expect this same kind of attention from everyone. Really, I don't even expect people to cook differently for us if we visit them for a snack or dinner. We don't mind bringing a safe alternative for Big Bro, as long as we know ahead of time. He's used to it, and that puts the burden on us, not on our friends. (Although probably don't have peanut butter cookies for dessert!)

If we visit you and we ask to read labels, or ask if you could wash your table/hands/food scissors before a meal, please don't feel insulted. I hate to ask, but I'm responsible for my boy, and I'm having to grow past my fear of confrontation to keep him safe. I'll try to do it politely. It's not that I don't trust you. It's that I want every judgement call on safety to fall on me or my husband, so that we alone carry the responsibility for any reaction he might have.

If you're not sure about how to treat nuts or other high-allergen foods, maybe think about it like this. We wouldn't ask you not to take Ibuprofen in a roomful of children. If you've got a headache, you need it. If your kid has a fever, you need to use it. But we would certainly expect you not to offer it to anyone's children other than your own. We would expect you not to leave the medicine dropper in reach of other children, and not to send your child out into the play area with hands sticky from medicine. We would expect you not to leave the bottle of medicine in reach of children. If you're not sure how to handle peanuts or other high-allergen foods, maybe start to think of your food like you would a bottle of medicine.

Oh, and lastly, if I ever swoop in like I'm saving the day and grab your child's peanut butter sandwich from them, just politely ask for it back and let's pretend it never happened. I live so much of my time watching out for this huge danger in my family, that it is very hard for me to remember sometimes that nuts are not dangerous for most of the world. So just kindly continue feeding your child and give me some extra grace!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Finding Normal... Through the Fog

A few weeks ago, I posted a blog post. Then I re-read it. And then I cried over my own post.

All because of one little line: "We'll make it, and we'll fall into a rhythm eventually."

There are moments when I could almost forget that Baby S isn't ours. There aren't too many of them. I am working hard to stick to as many of his mother's preferences as possible. He goes on visits three days a week. There are the frequent phone calls, appointments and rounds of paperwork to manage. So there are plenty of things to remind me that he's probably not here forever - most of the time.

But those other moments sneak up. After all, he's a 2-1/2-month old who's been with us for a month. We've already seen him grow and change in so many ways. Big Bro wants to keep him forever.

Is it true that we'll get a chance to fall into a rhythm as a family? Will he be here long enough to work out sleeping schedules and room sharing with Big Brother A? Will we see him grow and develop into a bigger, happier boy who smiles and laughs and holds his arms out for us after a nap or when we pick him up from nursery? I don't know.

4-month-old Baby Z was with us just long enough for me to feel like I was coming out of the baby fog. He was with us long enough to smile at me like I was his Mommy, and to laugh hardest for me and Josh because we knew just exactly how to tickle him. We were reaching the tipping point where the baby's love and affection was its own reward. Then he left, and we started over again, back to a family of three and needing to readjust our family roles.

Baby S is 2 months younger than Baby Z was while he was in our home. (Baby Z is actually 7 months old now. I'd love to see him and snuggle him and exclaim at how beautifully chubby and tall he hopefully is now that he's been under the right kind of care and nourishment for months!) Although Baby S is surprisingly well scheduled already for his age (in my limited experience), our daily routine is a work in progress. It is, in fact, progressing; but we are so not there yet.

When Big Brother A was born, we had the same fogginess - for a while. But it eventually cleared up. The frustration with foster care is realizing that we may stay in that fog for a long, long time.

We knew it would be tough to fall in and out of baby land so rapidly and often unexpectedly. What I think I didn't realize was how much extra grace I would need for myself. When a new baby arrives, Josh doesn't take days off of work. We don't expect extended family to drive through the night to come meet the little one and help with laundry and grocery shopping. We set the standard that "life continues as normal and we can handle it", and that's pretty much how things roll out.

And that's where my struggle pops up. We're on kid #2 - or foster baby #3 - however you want to look at it. We've done 34 nights of late-night feedings since our foster journey started. We've said three hellos and two goodbyes (or four and three, if you count our little guy who was here for a weekend while his foster parents were on vacation).

My first problem is that I'm comparing myself to other people. My second is that I'm thinking (again) too much about what other people think of me. And my third problem is that I assign certain amounts of grace to each person depending on their stage of life. If I didn't do that, I wouldn't think everyone else was doing it to me. I think we all do it a little. The parent of a newborn isn't expected to get anywhere on time - just congratulated if they make it out at all! The mom of an infant is excused from a little spit-up on her shirt or from pulling out diapers, wipes and a snot sucker from her purse before finally fishing out her wallet.

But because we have set the "life moves as normal" standard, I do not assign myself the same amount of grace I would assign you, if you had a 2-month-old baby. Things do move differently in the foster world. They must. We cannot stop our lives every time a baby comes or goes - especially if they are going to keep coming and going at the rate we've seen so far!

But that baby fog is still there. My brain is just as foggy with 2-month-old Baby S as it was with 2-month-old Big Brother A. I can remember (usually) how long till the baby needs to eat or be changed or when Medical Motors is coming to pick him up for a visit. I can remember (usually) what Big Bro had for lunch and thus what not to feed him again for dinner.

But I can't remember any time commitment that is not on the calendar. (Let's hope everything made it on there...) I can't remember birthdays, because I don't really know what today's date is. I only know what my Google agenda told me I'm doing today and tomorrow! I can't seem to stick to a meal schedule for more than 2 days in a row. I can't keep on top of laundry and cleaning. I can't remember what I'm looking for 30% of the time I get up and cross the room to get something. (I made up that percentage, but you get the idea.)

I can't change the life-moves-on attitude entirely. We do need to move forward, after all. But I'm going to try to start giving myself more grace. I'm going to start trying to think of myself as the mom of a 2-month-old, not as a mom who signed up for this and ought to have it all figured out already. And anyway, since when is having everything figured out the same as being able to execute it on very little sleep?