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.