Saturday, December 31, 2016

A New Year and God's Story for Baby S

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 16, 2016

A Month With Baby S

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Time to Walk the Walk

I am a genuinely selfish person.

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

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

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

Time to walk towards the mess!

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

Walk towards the mess.

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

Walk towards the mess.

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

Walk towards the mess.

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

Walk towards the mess.

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

Just walk towards the mess.

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

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

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

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

The emotional baggage is weighing heavily on my wife. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that’s walking towards the mess.

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

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

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Old Fears and New Answers

As I've mentioned before, my household is looking ahead into re-entering the foster care world soon - probably within the next few weeks. We've been saying after Thanksgiving. Big Brother A is praying, "God, please let Thanksgiving be tomorrow so we can do foster care again!"

It's felt really strange to tell people "we do foster care, but not right now" over the last ten months. Ten months! I can't even believe that Baby S left us ten months ago. We're still on the roller coaster for the ups and downs of his life. We're still communicating, still having him over, still texting about his therapists and diagnoses and struggles. We're still missing him. We're still praying for him. He's still in our nightly "sunshine" song where we thank Jesus for each part of our family. It's still "Baby S's crib"; "Baby S's toy"; "Baby S's carseat". We have diapers and spare clothes in his current size. So although we're technically not "doing foster care" it feels like all that has really changed (other than the obvious empty bed) is the lack of communication with case workers. The rest of the ups, the downs, the drama and the love have all stayed the same.

All that to say that it's been strange feeling like we're advocating for something but not really doing it, all while feeling exhausted from doing something that still feels a whole lot like foster care even though it technically isn't. Now we're talking about adding another child, and it's always framed in terms of "if Baby S" and "when Baby S". We're not filling his bed. Possibly ever. We can keep serving his family by being there if Birth Parent becomes unable to keep up with our little guy. It's something Parent mentions regularly. We have another crib, though. We might be crazy (when we think about "what if Baby S AND..."), but we're getting excited to fill it.

We picked out some special new toys for our next foster son. We hope having something soft and warm of his very own will help him to feel some love and comfort while his world is scary and changing.

Excited. And can I honestly say... Terrified. Knowing something is coming does not make it easier. For example, knowing we'd be tired with a newborn did not make being tired feel any less tiring. Knowing it would hurt having Baby S leave didn't make it any less painful. And knowing how much it rocks our world and how tightly the grief of losing a child winds into every part of life will not make it easier next time. If it ever gets easier, we're doing it wrong, and that will be when we need to quit. This round of goodbye had a huge impact on me emotionally and mentally. I feel like, between that and a physically rough pregnancy, I was battling depression I didn't even know I had until it started lifting in just the last month. So looking from my newly clearing lens into a future that could involve another prolonged goodbye and another painful round of grieving is still scary. In fact, it's probably even more terrifying than it was when we started foster care because the first round of grief keeps getting ripped open. Thinking of stacking another hurt on top of that - well, let's just say it might be a big growing moment for my mental stability! And adding to that the fact that there's no guarantee of future contact once a child returns home? It's heavy.

So old fears have not left. They may be even stronger. But I've grown since the last time we've been in this waiting-for-a-call place. The year of grief, goodbye and depression has grown and stretched me. It's the kind of growing pains that keep your kids up at night, but then in the morning you're almost positive they're a whole inch taller than yesterday. I have learned just how weak I am in the last year. And in that weakness, I have come to be totally and completely awed by God's strength. He has always been enough. I have never been enough. And in every new way that I see my insufficiency for this task, I see even more clearly God's ability to use those very insufficiencies to make his part in this household shine even brighter. It's an amazing thing. One of God's greatest gifts in the last year has been learning that "I'm not strong enough" is true. That's okay, because God doesn't need strong people. He uses people like Paul from the Bible who know their weakness and let God shine through by using an impossibly broken person for too-amazing-for-them things.

When we started this journey, we quickly learned that one question almost always follows after people find out we're a foster family. "Won't you get too attached? Wouldn't it be too hard to give them back?" I've gone through various answers in our three years of fostering. I started with "Yes, it will be hard, but it will be worth it." I went through "Yes, it is absolutely killing me and it's only by God's grace that I'm standing upright, dressed and showered, pretending to be a functional person." (Don't worry. I didn't say any of that. Just YES and then moved on, because I couldn't go into any more than that without sounding like a crazy person.)

And now I've landed on a new answer, which I hope is more helpful and informative.

"Won't you get too attached?"

"Yes. That's the point."

Our Baby S has regressed in a lot of ways. It's been painful to watch that. But through it all, he loves people. He loves us. He seeks attention. He makes eye contact. (He really does. They say a lot of things, but he still has more HIM left with us than in other situations, and we still see it.) He laughs and giggles and plays chase. He tries to copy his Big Brother A and be just like him. He's attached. That's the biggest thing we have given him. That is one of the only things he has kept. It might be enough to change his life, even with all of the hard things he's going through now. He knows he can love and be loved. He knows he's lovable. He knows he likes to laugh and make others laugh. Maybe, someday, he'll be able to believe that Jesus loves him because he believes that love is real.

It hurts like crazy to attach deeply to someone who leaves. It hurts beyond belief to watch someone you're deeply attached to suffer and struggle and be unable to help.

But if we didn't have foster care, these babies would be numbers. They'd be beds in a big room full of beds, with staff helpers coming in and out. They'd be played with and they'd get attention, but they wouldn't get attachment. That's our gift that they carry with them. And it is worth it. And it does hurt. And that's the whole point.

So we wait, full of nerves and fear and hope and a little bit of crazy (if our 3-month-old stops sleeping through the night we're going to wonder what we got ourselves into!). It's going to be good and hard to dive back in. We're feeling ready and not-ready.

We'll let you know when we're officially back on the list. We're hoping for December. Pray that Baby Gigi keeps sleeping so we continue to feel able to add another round of love, and awake at night, and making messes, and court and case workers, and buckling into carseats, and brotherly arguing, and sharing toys with the baby's face...

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

A Moment for the Hellos

There has been a lot of time spent processing goodbyes in our household. Goodbyes are painful, whether we spend months preparing for them or get a phone call that they're happening in an hour. Goodbyes are one of the first things people think about when they hear "foster family", and their impact lasts a long time, so we've talked about them a lot.

But as we're gearing up to launch back into foster care in the next couple of months, I want to take a moment for the hellos.

Our hello moments didn't have people ready with cameras for family photos and first moments together. There weren't balloons or flowers. The pictures we do have had to remain private, and we couldn't share names or details of why our children came to us or what they had experienced. The days and weeks after a placement involve many meetings and appointments, lots of trial and error, and then the straightforward exhaustion of sleeplessness with little babies. Most of the stories, images and memories from those first days with each of our children have remained within our own household.

So I want to talk about the hellos now, before we're back in the midst of the chaos. About the beauty, excitement and tragedy of bringing home someone else's baby.

When my home is open and ready for a child, I jump at every phone call. Everything stops to answer the phone. The phone comes everywhere. I answer every unrecognized number at any time of day, because even though I'm perfectly aware that the county will call from a county number, I can't stand the thought of missing out on a phone call. (I know this is irrational. I'm over it.) A missed call or a dead phone battery could mean someone else takes the call and the child is placed elsewhere. (Probably still with a family that is loving and wonderful, so I feel like kind of a bad person saying this, but it's disappointing to realize major life change was a moment away and you missed it.)

Those moments of answering the phone and finding out that it's one of those calls are full of adrenaline and excitement. Shaking hands, running around trying to find note paper, but writing on a scrap or an envelope instead because everything is happening quickly. Not much information - maybe a birthday, a name, a race, some background information. Trying to jot down every detail and carry on a conversation, all while trying to make the major decision of whether or not to make this child a part of my family. Asking questions, knowing the odds of getting answers are slim - and the odds of getting correct answers are even more slim, because again, no one has very much information, and sometimes what little there is isn't deemed important for the foster parent (we can talk that one over another time). Even the few details we get have to be taken with a grain of salt - birthday, parent history, even a child's name, can all be wrong in those first phone calls.

By the time I'm off the phone, I've made a huge life decision, all while jotting down notes and carrying on a conversation; yet somehow there's already a twelve-step to-do list in my mind by the time I hang up. Then I'm running around, texting family and close friends to announce our new addition, contacting the pediatrician and the child's case worker. Putting laundry through the wash, all in various sizes because who knows how big this child will be. Grabbing diapers and pacifiers of varying sizes and shapes because, again, I know nothing about the child. I'm sterilizing bottles from storage and getting out the can of formula we keep for backup; changing the crib sheets; packing a diaper bag; rearranging my schedule for the next few days...

All this happens while the situation is still up in the air. I remember the day Big Brother A and I got a call for a 10-month-old baby boy while we were at the beach. I still can't believe that I heard the phone ring from the water. They would let me know by 4:00 if R came into care. They didn't, and he didn't. I still pray for that baby. The hello never happened, but just knowing he was there made a place for him in my heart. I will forever pray for him by name. Even that whisper of a hello is a beautiful privilege.

Our very first foster baby hello.

The first baby who did come... The first call after three months of certification. That baby was already in care. That situation was different than many, because he was in an emergency foster home. He was clean. He was dressed in clothes that fit, that weren't stained. We knew when he should eat next and what kind of formula to use. We knew his age, his name, his situation. The next day, we found out that the situation wasn't what we'd been told, and he left. But the hello was beautiful. Soaking in a new little person. Knowing that in ten days, he'd lived in four places. Wanting to show him what love looks like for as many days as we had. Treasuring him, even when he wouldn't sleep at night, because he needed to be treasured, because he needed to know what home feels like. Josh and I sitting next to him at 4 am, awed by the beautiful details in his perfect little toes and fingers, trying to learn his face and ears by heart, stroking his sweet, soft hair. Beautiful hello.

And the next baby. He was in the hospital. They didn't know if he'd be discharged that day or the next. I got a call back that he needed to stay one more day and we couldn't go to be with him that night because we'd be in danger from a birth parent. We mourned the chance to spend the night in the hospital with our baby, our baby we had never met, so that he would not be alone. I was SO EXCITED and distracted when I got the follow-up call that he was definitely coming to us that I ran not one, but TWO loads of wash with NO clothing in them. (Remember, that was in our pay laundry era, so that's $3.00 in quarters!)

I packed his going-home bag. Four months old, but to us, the outfit I picked would be his first. The day he came home would be the day he joined our family. This was my first medically fragile child. I didn't have a clue how big he'd be or what his needs would look like, but I was ready to learn. I had to leave my husband and Big Bro A at home, because the situation wasn't safe for Big Bro. This time we wouldn't all meet the baby at once. The feeling of wandering into the hospital to pick up a baby - surreal, exciting, nerve-wracking. I learned that there's a social services room in the hospital. I was brought to my little Baby Z and left in his room while logistics were sorted out. A nurse came in to introduce us, showed me the baby, and asked if that was who I was there for. I didn't even know his race; I couldn't have told her if it was the wrong baby! How quickly can you bond with a baby if you're not sure it's the right one yet?? Beautiful baby; uncertain hello.

I remember getting information overload on how to care for this special baby, and asking them to write it all down for me. There were discharge papers I wasn't allowed to sign because I wasn't his legal guardian. A county worker was there for that. I was amazed at how much the hospital staff LOVED my baby. They had nicknames for him. They knew what he liked and didn't. Some told me memories of their weeks with him, and that they would miss him. If I had known how loved he was already, I wouldn't have felt quite as sad about having to wait one more day to meet him. Being in the hospital did not mean he was alone.

I wasn't allowed to carry him to the car. I wasn't even allowed to use my clean, safe, sturdy infant carrier carseat. I had to place him in the dirty, broken infant carrier with the strap only on one side from his birth family, "so he would stand out less". I was escorted to the parking garage by security people, who checked around corners and inside elevators for the relative who might attack if she saw me with her baby. A nurse pushed a hospital cart full of beautiful new items people had given our little guy so he'd have his own things. They left me in the parking garage, hoping I didn't find out what baby's relative looked like by meeting her face to face! I switched him to our carseat and loaded the trunk: our diaper bag; beautiful donated items that were just oozing with the love of many different people; and the not-so-nice things his family had brought to the hospital with him, never anticipating that they would be going home with someone else - that their baby would be going home with someone else.

I brought him upstairs to our apartment, where he met my husband and son for the first time. That was beautiful. Another beautiful hello. Even the evil cat came to sniff sweetly at his tiny, gorgeous little curls. Beautiful moments, all ours. No family pictures, just snapshots of one or another of us getting to know this precious boy. Beautiful pictures that we would look back on after he left in two weeks, amazed at how much change had already happened. Dry skin was smoothed; cracked and rough hands were healed. His thin face had rounded out; his sad and lonely cry had been replaced by a smile and the most beautiful baby giggle. Joyful boy.

And the third baby. Big Brother A and I were out getting groceries, and I got the call in the checkout line at Wegmans. I rudely took it, and I'm so glad I did! So I was putting groceries on the checkout belt, trying to remember all the information coming from the homefinder with no ability to write it down, and feeling so rude about ignoring the cashier. In the meantime, Big Bro decided he wasn't getting enough attention and opened up a box of elbow macaroni and dumped the ENTIRE box on the floor! So we had the cashier, the kind maintenance person, the person getting our new box of pasta, a cranky 2-year-old, and me still rudely on the phone! They were, of course, very courteous and forgiving, because Wegmans customer service is awesome. Such a memory!

That call was a probably-later pickup. We went out as a family to have lunch together, and we got the definitely-come-now call right after lunch. All of us went together that time. We went to a county building, the same one we'd visited for our goodbye with Baby M. We parked in the loop. I got out of the car and walked up to the door with an empty baby carrier. I waited for a few minutes with the people who were loitering outside. Then a case worker came down with a baby, a toy, and a diaper bag. I vividly remember thinking it was a little inappropriate for the random person sitting on the stone wall next to me to say "oh, he's going with her? I'll take him!!!" and how shocking it was that they just handed me the baby and his things without any ID or signatures (I hope they looked up my face in a file somewhere first!). And then I latched the infant carrier in the car, and we drove away, with a new baby that two people in the car hadn't even looked at yet! We had our moment of introduction at home, alone. Sweet and beautiful. Another hello.

Hellos for us are blurry text pictures to family and close friends, family movie nights and frozen pizzas. Hellos are trips to Wal-Mart where well wishers congratulate me on how skinny I am for having such a young baby and then give my husband and I very puzzled looks when they realize how very white we both are! Hellos are new clothes that a baby never gets to wear, that become sweet hopes packed away for another baby who might come some day. Hellos are wondering if this baby has had a bottle before. Did they nurse? Is their mommy still healing from delivery? Is she okay? What is she thinking and feeling right now? Does their daddy even know? Are there siblings missing this sweet babe? What does his new sibling think of him? Is this the first day of forever, or one in a numbered set? Hellos are taking pictures of every moment and every first, even though it's just a first for us, because maybe we'll be the one making a baby book for that little one. Maybe this will be the story we'll tell our child someday. Maybe we'll have the privilege of sharing their forever as friends, even if they aren't in our home. Maybe we'll be able to send a CD of pictures with them when they leave so that this chapter of their lives will be beautiful and loving, not blank and unknown. Maybe we will have the ability to give bio family glimpses of the precious moments they missed.

Every moment in foster care is bittersweet. The hellos and goodbyes are equally precious, beautiful, and heartbreaking. They leave you wrestling with a thousand questions and thoughts that have no answers, and you have to just surrender and enjoy the baby smell. You treasure the outfit they came in, even if it was dirty and mismatched, because that's how you met. You treat the toys and blankets they brought along with care, because what if that's all you'll have to share with them some day about their first home? (But if the baby isn't attached to the smell... You wash them. Because yikes.)

The joy and anticipation of the hello is something beautiful. It is something I can look forward to even in the midst of the hardest goodbye. I have learned that hello doesn't lose its beauty. And while the uncertainty of the future is painful, I can say with certainty that there will be more hellos when the time is right. The hellos and the in-betweens are well worth the goodbyes.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

We were all foster kids...

Adoption is greater than the universe. That’s the takeaway from reading the first chapter of Paul’s 1st century letter to the church in the city of Ephesus. He writes that God chose his future children long before the world was even created. Adoption was on His mind while he was forming the universe.

But ultimately adoption is a beautiful tragedy.

It is beautiful because it is intentional, requires sacrifice, and gives a child a new identity within the fold of a family. They are no longer orphans and they are definitely not just “adopted children” -- they are a son or daughter! They are equal with that of children born by blood, because love transcends simple biology. It’s an incredible reflection of the way that God adopts those who have faith in Christ and gives us the title “children of God.”

It is tragic because the ultimate cause of adoption is sin. It is because of sin that death exists and leaves orphans in its wake. It is because of sin that a child faces neglect or abuse and enters the foster care system. It is because of sin that families are fractured and children must be adopted into a new family.

Sin has corrupted the original design for creation and for the family and adoption is the beautiful response that attempts to bring Gospel-driven order to all of the chaos.

But what about foster care? How might we view foster care in light of God’s original design?

Similarly, adoption in foster care is a beautiful tragedy. It gives a home, permanency, and a new identity to a child with significant disruption in their lives.

But adoption is NOT the ultimate goal of foster care.

The goal of foster care is to provide a very temporary solution when disruption happens within a family. Sometimes a parent’s poor choices (drug abuse, crime, or neglect, to name a few) create an unsafe situation for a child. Other times an emergency situation leaves a child in a precarious situation (for instance, a child’s sole caretaker is hospitalized and they do not have any support network in place).

Whatever the cause, the goal of foster care is to care for a child while doing everything possible to pursue reunification. The ideal outcome after a child enters foster care is for the biological parent to find healing, help, and recovery so that they can parent their child. We know that simply can’t happen in every situation, but that is the ultimate goal.

And I believe that this is a profound picture of the Gospel, albeit a different one than adoption.

In the opening chapters of scripture, we catch a glimpse of an incredible relationship between God and humankind. Adam and Eve walked side-by-side with their maker in the garden before sin entered into the equation.

Since then, the effects of sin have separated man from God and we’ve been desperately trying to bridge the divide. Eventually God sent his Son, Jesus, to pay the penalty for our sin and bring us back into a right relationship.

In this same sense, children in foster care are estranged from their parents and the hope and goal is that they will be reunited. As a foster parent, I am given the opportunity to play a role in the reconciliation of a child with a parent. It’s an act of restoration, bringing a family back to its God-designed structure and function.

The metaphor breaks down quickly, because we recognize that God didn’t do anything wrong. The break in the family relationship was because of OUR rebellion. And even though it was MY fault, God paid the price to rectify that relationship. Nevertheless, foster care is about us playing a role in restoring what has been broken.

But because adoption is a possible outcome of foster care, there are many layers of Gospel redemption. We got into foster care to help families reconcile and to walk alongside hurting parents and care for hurting children. But if reconciliation isn’t possible, we welcome the opportunity to adopt a child and give them a new identity in our family!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

What's it like with two kids?

Some questions are hard to answer.

For our family, we’ve come to realize there are a host of family-related questions that have no simple answers.

After our biological son was born (Big Brother A), we took a leap of faith and started our foster care journey. We’ve had four children in our home over the last 3 years. One of those children stayed in our home for a significant amount of time. Baby S came to our home at six weeks old and stayed with us until a few months shy of his second birthday.

That’s a year and a half in our home. We were mom and dad. We celebrated a birthday. We took family vacations. Then over a painful few months he transitioned back to live with his biological mom. Now we have an empty crib (when we moved to our new home Big Brother A asked to have the crib in his room because he missed Baby S). And we have family pictures on our walls that include a boy that people don’t see when they visit.

Then came Baby Gigi. Now about 2 weeks old, she is our second biological child.

And when you have a new baby, anyone and everyone wants to catch a glimpse and they have lots of questions. They inevitably ask about the labor. They always ask if you are getting enough sleep. And then they turn to Big Brother A and say some variant of:

How do you like being a big brother?

Everyone means well. We are not out to catch people with a “gotcha” whenever they ask this. But my wife and I often get a little chuckle and cast knowing glances to each other.

They tell him that they think he will be a good big brother. Yes. He will be a good big brother. He’s already got four other younger siblings and almost two total years of experience in this department.

This next question comes from people who don’t know us well. They know we have a new baby, but they aren’t sure what the rest of our family looks like. It’s a harmless question, but we are never sure how to answer...

What number child is this for you?

I feel like saying “two” doesn’t accurately describe our family and it definitely short-changes the impact those babies had on our family. But saying “six, but three were only here for a short time and one was for a year and a half but he’s back with his biological mom” is way more than they were asking for (like when someone asks how you are doing and all they are really looking for is “fine”).

I guess what they ultimately mean if pressed is “How many kids are in your home right now?” That’s a fair question. After I answer politely, the inevitable follow-up is…

How is the transition to two?

It’s about the same as the last four times we transitioned to two.

I absolutely love that this is a messy question for us. Our family’s unofficial motto is “Walk towards the mess.” Time and time again God did that for us. When humans were at their worst and running hard away from their creator, God decided to wade into the mess of humanity to bring a solution. He did it by choosing one man, Abraham, to build a unique relationship. He did it by choosing an unlikely king, David, to forge a unique nation. He did it by becoming a man Himself, Jesus, to bring us back to Him. Time and time again God has rolled up his sleeves and moved deep into the mess to make things right.

We want to do just that. When things are hard, we want to turn towards the mess and not run from it.

There are easier ways for us to grow our family. There are safer ways for our kids to engage with ministry. There are simpler ways for us to help those in need.

But God didn’t choose a simple solution. He chose to die for us.

The least I can do is try to figure out how to answer the messy question “What’s it like with two kids?”

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Ten Days

Hello, world!

Ten days ago, we added "Baby Gigi" to our family. (Gigi is the name Big Brother A calls her, so we'll borrow it for our blog.)

She's absolutely wonderful. We're so thankful for a second "forever baby". After a difficult pregnancy and a very busy month trying to get our new house all in order before the baby arrived, it's so great to just be home with our baby, settling in and making plans that don't include lists of home repairs or closets to organize and that don't require my phone timer going off all day reminding me to eat the right things at the right times and then prick my finger an hour after! Our new normal has been much anticipated and I'm so filled with joy and so excited that we are finally here.

As we've mentioned before, we're on pause from foster care right now as we settle in with our new house and new baby. We want to give Baby Gigi her time to be in the spotlight and Big Brother A time to adjust before we reallocate our time and energy into another little foster brother or sister. And we're still tracking with Baby S, too.

Even though we're not doing foster care at the current moment, it has changed things. It changes the way I see our current journey. I can't go a day without feeling the enormity of how blessed we are. Before foster care, I thanked God that we had a home and that we weren't living on the streets. I thanked God that we were healthy and that our marriage was better than we deserved, by God's grace.

But I've learned that our blessing goes so much beyond these things. I'm learning that I'm not a better person because of my good choices; rather, I'm a better person only by God's power working in me and if I had dealt with some of the situations birth families deal with, maybe I'd be surprised at how much I'd look like them. God is big enough to meet their needs and we are all responsible for our choices; difficult situations do not excuse sin. But my list of blessings that I thank God for has expanded.

In my home, we have the education to make wise choices for the health of our child, both in pregnancy and now that she's here on the outside. We have the resources to look up information when we're unsure of something. We have access to incredible and supportive doctors as well as a health insurance plan that allows us to receive their care when needed. We have a network of people to help us in an instant - with caring for Big Brother A when we were in the hospital, with meals to help ease the transition, and with moving our stuff and unpacking to make our settling-in process so much faster and smoother. I cannot picture an emergency situation where we could not get help from a dozen different families and this is a blessing bigger than I can describe. (Northridge is an awesome community of people who love Jesus and love each other; we'd seriously love for you to check it out if you've never experienced this kind of family before!)

The list goes on, but I think you get it. Blessed beyond measure. And I cannot see my newest little baby except through this lens.

Today, Baby Gigi is ten days old. I've been looking ahead and counting down to this milestone. It's been a bittersweet reminder to see this day approaching. Baby M was ten days old when he came to us. I've watched Baby Gigi grow and learn so much in the last ten days. She has learned that she can cry to communicate. She has learned that when she's hungry, mommy will feed her. She has learned my face; she will stop crying in my arms even before she's eating because she knows food is coming. She has learned that there are other people who come and go from our home; kind and gentle people who talk over her in sweet voices and stroke her soft hair. And she has learned that there are three constant, stable people who are always here with her. She's learning family. She's learning stability. She's soaking in love at every moment. We can't get enough of her.

But my Baby M? He had lived in FOUR places by the time he came to us. He could cry to be fed in three of those. He was physically cared for in three and loved and nurtured in at least two. But there was no stability. There were no attachments forming. He was learning aloneness. He was learning constant change. The smells were always different; the sounds were never dependable; he didn't know who would answer his hunger cry, or what the formula would taste like, or what kind of bottle he'd have that time.

And his mama? She was probably feeling a lot like I am right now, physically. Still sore and tired. Probably still dealing with a milk supply that wasn't going to be feeding her baby. A little hormonal and emotional, but without the happiness and peace and beauty of her baby to keep her going when she was tired and overwhelmed. Her nights were still sleepless, but she didn't have her baby there to feed. His baby things were set up and ready in her home, but he wasn't there.

So while I soak up all the sweet moments and kiss my baby for the hundredth time today, I choose to feel blessing, not pride, at where we are and what life looks like in our home. While I snuggle my sweet forever baby, I pray for the mamas who choose adoption for their little ones, who fight through long hard pregnancies and difficult labors and make the very brave and loving choice to let someone else walk out of the hospital with a new baby in their arms. I pray for the mamas who thought this would be the baby they could finally keep, only to have their child immediately removed into foster care; mamas going home with an empty womb and an empty carseat. I pray for the mamas who did succeed in providing their children care for a time, only to have them taken away later. I thank God that he has a role for us in a few of these families, and I pray that he could use us not just to love on little ones, but to help moms and dads to feel love, stability, and acceptance - maybe for the first time.

I want to say bringing home my biological baby is no different than bringing home a foster baby. It's simply not true. I love them just the same. But there's a kind of instant, fierce protective instinct over those little foster babies that is replaced by pure gratitude and awe in my forever baby. There's a part of me that rises up with a readiness to fight and an extra rush of adrenaline to answer every whimper before it's even escaped their lips when it's my job to teach an older baby the lessons of love and nurture and responsiveness that my newborn is learning now. I love them just the same. But there's something different about holding a child whose future is so uncertain. You have to do all your fighting for them right now, because you might not get a chance tomorrow. When I hold my forever baby, I hear all of the people who've held their forever babies and then asked me, "Isn't it hard to say goodbye to a foster baby?" My heart breaks a little because I cannot picture saying goodbye to my Baby Gigi. But then I remember the fight that rises up inside of you when you're loving on a possibly-temporary child; and because the bits of love you can give them might have to last them a very long time, you love them hard and you love them without reservation. Your heart can handle another break, because they need this and because you love them enough to break for them.

I am so thankful for my forever babies. I look ahead eagerly to the day where we continue foster care. Eagerly, and with a lot of sadness and some nerves, too, because it's never easy, and you don't go a day of loving a foster child without remembering that their future is uncertain and wishing desperately you could fix things for them. I continue to pray for the babies who left, because God is big and good and he has not forgotten them.

And I breathe in the smell of my baby's hair and stroke her tiny toes and find immense joy in storing up her clothes for the coming year knowing that she'll still be here to wear them.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Houses and Babies and Very Good Things and Very Hard Things

So, it's kind of been a while since I have written.

Long enough that I had to stop and think about what website I use to blog when I sat down today.

Life has been moving really fast. In some areas, it has moved forward quickly, and there have been exciting things to plan for and to keep us busy. In some areas, it has moved backwards, quickly and painfully. These are things I cannot write much about, because it is not my information to share. But the pull between the very good and the very hard has been a challenge for me.

Our second biological baby is due in less than a month. I am so very excited to meet our little girl, and as the date approaches, I have been more able to fully experience the joy of anticipating her arrival. But this has been a hard thing for me. This pregnancy has not been an easy one. The fact that we were going through hard things with Baby S throughout did not mean we got to experience an easy pregnancy in exchange. I was sick a lot in the beginning... and the middle. I finally felt like I was hitting the second trimester "easy stage" with just a few weeks left to the second trimester. That was a good three weeks. And then I started to feel off and tired and just not right, with the occasional return of morning sickness. Yay. Shortly after that, I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes, and that has been a constant challenge. Half my brain is devoted to counting carbs and proteins and how long until the next time I need to check my blood sugar. I have forgotten all math, science, psychology... every grown-up topic and all the smart things I used to have in my brain from college... because I have replaced that information with how many carbs are in a serving of green peppers or a slice of Wegman's White Whole Wheat Bread. The up side to this is that, for the first time in my pregnancy, I do feel some measure of control over how I feel. There are actual numbers that I can use to help myself feel better. It's a pretty big job to keep track of it.

It goes everywhere I go. And attacks my finger no matter where I am. Sorry, other people at Home Depot who don't like blood.

And through all the sickness and sometimes feeling weak and sometimes feeling discouraged, life keeps moving forward. We bought a house. That's super exciting, but we didn't know when we were moving in, so that was another holding pattern in my life that threatened to raise my anxiety levels. I saw myself losing energy with the pregnancy and losing time to pack and move and unpack, and I had to be very conscious of not letting myself spiral into a whole lot of worrying. I think I mostly did okay with not worrying, by God's amazing power, through a LOT of prayer and God's amazing ability to give me just what I need from whatever part of the Bible I happen to be going through in my reading plan. (By the way, being pregnant and not able to sleep at night is really awesome for helping me learn to pray more and WANT to pray more. I am actually not being sarcastic when I say that it has been totally worth the sleepless hours to be able to intimately wrestle through my hard things with God.)

And... there's my Baby S. He's been gone for almost half a year. He is not doing well. We have watched him spiral. It is very hard. It is hard for us, and for birth parent. We are still working together even though he is no longer technically involved with us as a foster care placement. In my high school and college years, the things we are witnessing now would have made me sick with worry. I still struggle to constantly re-decide to trust God with Baby S's future, and the weight of that struggle and that pain is very heavy, but I am thankful for my very-imperfect progress and continue to ask God to help me grow in this area. And I have seen him faithfully doing that, even though I don't deserve it and never could have grown even this much on my own. I'm not sure that I've learned not to worry, but I have learned to bring all of my worries to God, and the more I do this, the more I feel joy growing stronger in this struggle between the very-good and the very-hard.

When outside people ask about my life, I tell them that I'm expecting a baby any-time-ish, and that my family just moved into our first house, and that we have an almost-five-year-old who's super excited to be a big brother. Sometimes if they keep poking, we talk about foster care, and I give a polished answer and get the "oh wow that's so great!" and "now you have your own boy and girl so your family is complete even though you have babies who have left you!" type answers. I hear how awesome my life is right now, and how exciting my life is, and how happy I must be about the house and the baby.

And I'm going for transparency here, so I'm going to honestly tell you that this response causes me pain every time. I am excited. I am very thankful for these amazing good gifts that God has given to me.

But... I'm thankful because I have fought a spiritual battle this spring and summer, and wrestled with grief and weakness and pain, and because I am grasping at gratitude that God offers despite my tendency to focus on the hard over the good. And I'm filled with joy over these amazing gifts because I have wrestled through many hours of painful nighttime prayers, trying to grasp God's goodness and the brokenness of my Baby's situation, and choosing to believe that God is in control even when my heart wants me to be in control.

So it's a painful joy. A painful excitement. It is solemn more than jumping up and down. It is sometimes logical more than it is emotional.

I think this is okay. I think there are times we will wrestle deeply to claim joy. I know that God has been keeping my heart and my head open and aware of these issues in my life. He has taught me my patterns, and I now have a toolbox to go to when I start to feel anxious, depressed, or distant from God. I have great hope that God is making me more like him and I am praying that he will help my heart to want the things that he wants. It will be okay.

It will be okay because God, not because me. And so I want to acknowledge these struggles. I want to truthfully recognize that sometimes we can get good things that we have been waiting for a long time, and it can be hard. If you are there with me, I want you to know that I get it, and I'm praying for you. Thankfulness and pain and joy and hurt can live together, and they can be so overwhelming that it can be a fight not to shut down.

I'm making it, and my joy every day is real, and my trust is real, and they are more real for the fact that I can feel that they should not exist at all in broken me, and that they must therefore come from God, who is the giver of every good and perfect gift.

I'm thankful. I love my life. It's maybe a more grown-up and solemn kind of love than I expected, or the strangers in the grocery store expect. I'm praying that this grows me into a deeper person, a more passionate person, a more unmovable person with Jesus as my rock who doesn't move even in the very worst storms. I'm praying that cynicism stays far from me and that I would not allow bitterness to take root. (And good grief, that my pregnancy brain would let the spelling part wake back up, because I thought I knew how to spell these words and spellcheck keeps calling me out.)

And the house? It's amazing. It's beyond my comprehension that it's ours. I am so thankful for years of watching other people get houses while we worked through trying to do big things in a small space, because I would not have been as healthy in my new house if I hadn't had a chance to grow truly satisfied with apartment living and small spaces and a lack of permanency. I think this is such an amazing reminder of how God is going to use my current hurts to bring growth that I will be better for some day. God can use my present circumstances and my future to grow a deep joy and trust that goes far beyond what I could ever imagine.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Moving Forward

I have so many saved blog posts that I'll never publish. I have written in my head, but I can't even explain things in person. Life is messy, and good things are happening, but the hard things still hurt. I'm going to try to push through this post, and we'll just see how much sense it makes in the end, but I feel like I haven't kept you all up to date very well lately so I'm going to give this my best try.

As I mentioned in my Good Friday post, this year has been heavy, and sometimes the bad things are weighty. There's a lot of really great stuff going on in our lives right now, and I am so very thankful. I never want to come off as disinterested in my life or less than excited about the great gifts God gives to my family. There are things I really love about our life.

...Like finding out on vacation that we're having a baby GIRL!

I'm also going for honesty, though, so I'm going to go ahead and say that sometimes it's difficult to grasp the way the very good and very hard come wound together in our lives. I may have a tendency to look at all of the big things as parts of the long list of heavy-stuff-I'm-wrestling-through. I'm excited for the good things, but also overwhelmed by the competing grief and excitement in my head. I have Pinterest boards looking forward to how I'll decorate Big Bro's new room and the new nursery when we move into our first house; and I have vivid memories of Baby S screaming and struggling to free himself so he can come with me as I walk away from him each time we say goodbye. I have beautiful memories of our ultrasound and learning that our new baby will be a little girl; and favorite songs that are wonderfully upbeat and make me cry every time because I used to dance with Baby S to those songs. I go through little baby things for our new little person and I struggle to grasp the reality that I can keep clothes for her that are in sizes she won't see for a year or more, because the last three little people I mothered left with clothes they hadn't yet grown into and stocking up for the years ahead would have been unwise. I have dreams about falling in love with new foster boys or girls and worries about moving forward, limiting my resources, and then finding out that my Baby S needs to come back and needs all of my time and attention that is getting spread thinner and thinner.

And there's still anger, too. There's anger at a system that says one thing and does another. There's frustration - because why make rules at all if the breaking of the rules changes nothing? I'm starting to daydream (and night dream) about the next time we can do foster care, and at the same time, struggling with a lack of trust in this system.

There is joy. We are making the most of the freedom that comes with having only one child, and that child being a fairly independent four-year-old who can do a lot of cool family activities. We went away for a long weekend for a family vacation at an indoor waterpark, and we had so much fun together. I'm trying not to let this waiting time - waiting for Baby S, waiting for our new baby, waiting for our new house without knowing when we can move in - take away the joys of this life, this home, this little beautiful family within my walls right now.

Grief is still tricky. In moments where I've successfully immersed myself in the beauty of now, a child the age of our Baby S can send me rocking backward and struggling to stay present for Big Bro. Songs, places, even foods can bring back such strong and sudden memories, and inconsistently enough that I can't predict when it will happen. Life with Baby S is just far enough away that I sometimes think I've gotten control over these moments, but then there they are again; and Baby S's scream as he sees me walk away from him again makes reconciling his current reality much harder.

God is still good, though. The rock I stand on is this: That God can use even the messiest situations for his good and his glory. He might plan to use Baby S's hard life to build a relationship with my beautiful boy. I know I've written it before; just be thankful you don't have to read it as often as I have to think it, because you'd be totally sick of it by now. And there's this, too: My other little precious babies, both big boys who are older than 2 now, do not become less known to God even as they feel more and more distant from me. I won't get a call if either of those babies come back into care; but God is ever present for them although I can't be.

So there's that. We're moving forward one baby step at a time, laughing and crying at the unpredictability of life, totally in awe that NOTHING is unpredictable to God and finding great hope and comfort in that fact.

Thank you, as always, for the love and support and prayers. We really and truly could not keep moving forward in this journey without the amazing community God has gifted us with. You guys are incredible. We have felt so much support through our goodbyes, and now as we prepare simultaneously for our new hello, the possibility of Baby S returning someday, and our desire to continue fostering after our baby girl arrives, we are so excited and thankful to see how God works through this community to meet the physical needs of growing our family. A crib, a changing table, bags of baby girl clothes, a rock 'n play; there's a whole list of gifts that have come in already, and one of my strongest love languages is gifts, so believe me when I say that each time I see these items and dream about using them with baby girl and future foster children, I feel your love and support all over again! Thank you for filling my home with love and encouragement that actively fight back on days of disappointment, discouragement, and physical weakness (this baby girl is making sure we know she's here, guys!).

You guys are the best.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Bad Things

I know that it's only March, but allow me to say that 2016 has been a really hard year.

We said goodbye to our Baby S, and seeing him still brings pain as we reel through the changes in him and the heartbreak of his confusion and sadness every time we say goodbye again.

We are celebrating our expectation of another biological baby in August. And that's been so much harder than I expected. I have been so sick. I'm just past halfway through this pregnancy, and the magical numbers when morning sickness should disappear have come and gone. Sometimes it gets worse instead of better. Bonding with a baby while saying goodbye to my Baby S and experiencing physical sickness and weakness - what feels like a confusing betrayal by a body that used to be able to serve my family well - it's confusing, to say the least.

We started a house hunt. And oh, boy, adding one more thing to this plate... Wow.

This morning, on Good Friday, I'm thinking of a conversation I had with Big Brother A as we waited for preschool on Monday.

Me: You don't have school on Friday, you know.
A: Why not?
Me: It's Good Friday. Do you know what that means?
A: It's the day Jesus died. But why is it good?

Why is it good? I've processed that before, but never explained it at the spur of a moment. And if I'm honest, it's a question my heart still asks.

Why is all of Jesus' pain and suffering good? Why is an account that still leaves me confused and angry at the injustice and the indignity GOOD? Why is a group of friends running away and abandoning the one they loved, then watching him die as they stand stunned, confused, and out of hope, GOOD?

Why is Baby S leaving good? Why is being so sick that sometimes I can't even serve my family good? Why is being so busy that I'm back to throwing up most days good?

And for that matter, why was Baby S coming ever good? His coming was out of brokenness and pain and a family ripped apart. Why was getting married and then learning to be content in rented apartments, doing foster care in a small space and watching family after family moving forward into houses while we stayed and felt the limitations of where we were in the context of what we wanted to do, ever good? Why is one more very hard thing - being so sick in a time that is already so draining and emotionally difficult- why is that ever good?

Why is it good?

The complete measure of the goodness of what Jesus did for me can only come from the pain and the bad and the hurting of what happened to him. What happened to Jesus was brutal. It was wrong. People sinned when they mocked him, chose to hold illegal trials, found false witnesses to condemn him, and put him to death in a humiliating display between two people who deserved to be where Jesus was. I sinned when I chose, when I still choose, to follow my own way over and over and over again. I sinned and put up an ugly, irreversible wall between myself and God, between myself and Heaven. I made my own future, and it was ugly, brutal, condemning. It was all that Jesus took on himself.

It was bad.

And the goodness of what Jesus did shines from that badness. Every additional day that I live with me, I realize how deep my need for Jesus is. I'm a rule follower at heart, but that does not mean that I am good. It has meant that I want people to see me as good. It has even meant that I thought I was good, that I thought I could win some sort of imaginary prize for doing what's right. And the more I get to know my own heart, the more desperate my situation looks. That pride doesn't want to die. That stubbornness and insistence that I can do it myself, thank you is part of the big, bad, ugly wall that should have kept me away from God.

And Jesus broke that wall in the ugliest moment in history.

The ugliest, most beautiful, most Good moment in history.

This year has been a journey of grasping at hope when the emotional bad is so heavy that I can physically feel it. I've asked God to help, and although the very hardest bad things haven't gone away or gotten better, he's faithfully grown my joy, my purpose, and my hope inside of me in a way I can't explain outside of him. It's been a long, slow process. A lot of days of the process were me learning to just believe that there was hope, that there could be days of light and happiness again - not just the deep joy that doesn't go away; I love and value that, and I long for Heaven. But actual happiness. And as I woke up this morning, I realized that the answer I gave Big Brother A was the one I needed, too.

There has been a lot of hard and bad and sad this year. Jesus doesn't change that part of my life. Jesus told his friends it was going to be hard; he said it would get harder, even, if they followed him. Jesus didn't come to take away the hard.

Jesus came to make the hard mean something. He came to bring hope. He came so that all of my best efforts that fall so short and leave me so spent could somehow, in a way I absolutely don't deserve, bring about God's good and best. He came so that I could rest in him in the very hardest days, trusting that he knows what he's doing even when I don't understand it.

He came so that the months when my loudest cry is How is this Good could have the same answer as Big Brother's question. He came so that the badness and brokenness that still exists could make the Good richer and fuller and more mysterious and beautiful and filling than I could ever ask for or imagine.

The hope in my darkest days isn't in being delivered from the hard. It's from the beauty that glows forth from that hard and makes me long for Heaven as God faithfully uses me to play some small part in pointing others there, too.

The hope is a house - our first house! - found after some long weeks of searching and eight years of apartment living; of tough visits with Baby S and moments when his pain at our goodbye breaks my heart but also reminds me that I'm blessed to still be an influence in his life; of a whole new wave of change and painful transition at our church that's going to be hard, but I'm convinced will lead us in new and exciting places as we make sure our hope for growth has always been in Jesus and not a leader. The hope is more people loving Jesus in Rochester and becoming better followers of Jesus. The hope is finding our perfect house, on the street I drive down sometimes just because I love it so much, and knowing that God will be faithful to bless our move even when sometimes I'm too physically weak to do the laundry and I'm not entirely sure how I'm going to pull off the packing and cleaning involved. The hope is an ultrasound of a healthy baby, and my husband feeling the baby kick for the first time, both giving me moments of intense bonding and being able to finally start to look forward to this little person and see an end to this physical pain even if I am only just halfway through with a hard pregnancy.

The hope is ultimately knowing that these places we are in will still hurt. Some days I'll cry out for hope because I won't feel it. But I will know that God is faithful to refill me when it's time.

I'll know that there is Good in the very darkest, very worst day. That each day, like Good Friday, the Good will shine even brighter because it is happening in the dark places. That God's plan is still what is best, even as Jesus reminds me that the very best and most beautiful plan can also be the most painful.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Week Later

We have had so many people support our family and pray for us with Baby S's departure. I am so thankful for the love that has come our way. Thanks for the prayers, guys; we crave them, and we believe they make a difference.

How's the week been for us?

It's a little surreal. We are used to long stretches without Baby S. We are used to waking up in the morning and doing the quick calculation of "how many kids are asleep in our home?", or hearing a child during naptime and thinking "is there a baby in our crib, or is there another kid in the building?". So there are a lot of moments where I know he's gone, but then the reflex response takes over, and I have to recalculate in my head and realize Baby S is not here. The natural next calculation is "how many days until?" and the new answer is "maybe not again" and "one day at a time".

We are really mostly okay. Every day of foster care is a little bit of the grieving process. Every trial date, every visit, every overnight is a little bit of the goodbye grief surfacing. A foster parent isn't just starting the grieving when the child leaves. The grief has been real for a while, and the coping mechanisms that get us through every other day of foster care are still there for us the day the child leaves and the days after. There are tears in the days and weeks leading up to each tentative goodbye, and there are tears following the goodbye when it really happens. But they are mostly controlled, because we are used to holding it in when our minds and hearts are crying and hurting in court, and in meetings, and when we're with birth families. I try to let Big Bro A see some of my grief, so I can help him know that it's okay to grieve, too. And then the rest I am able to save for quiet moments when I can have some healing tears all to myself.

There are the unexpected tears, too. That's going to happen for a while. Like finding Baby S's sweater in the wash after I thought I had all of his clothes sorted and packed into clothes to go and a small pile to stay just in case. Or the moment when Big Bro A heard me talking to the cat and came in from the other room, asking if I was talking to Baby S. Or when I wake up at 5:05 AM and think "he'll be up soon!" before I've done my recalculating. The planned pain is manageable, like when we know he should have been coming home at night; the moments that sneak up on us are the hardest to cope with.

I have learned that I often don't know what to pray for in these moments, and in the many tough moments that foster care has brought in the last year. I have learned that sometimes I simply need to cry out to God for help. Help for me and my husband; help for Baby S; help for Big Bro; help for Birth Parent. Help for a broken system in a broken world. Help to know how to pray, what to hope for, how to process each painful interaction. Prayers as simple as "please help" have carried me through a lot of days. They're real, and the small number of words doesn't lessen the relief I feel when I bring these heavy things to God. When my babies cry out for help in the hardest, most hurting of moments, I don't need to ask them what they need. It's clear. And I reach out and help them without asking them to figure out the plan first.

As far as Big Bro A, I didn't know what to expect with his reaction. I've been a little surprised by how matter-of-fact the whole situation is for him. He's looked at pictures of his little brothers gone home every day since he can remember. He was only two when we started. He doesn't know siblings any other way. We've been telling him since Day 1 that Baby S would probably leave, but if he needed to stay, we'd be here for him. Big Bro loves birth parent, with a very real, innocent, childlike love. It is straightforward for him: Parent is better, Baby S is living there now, and now we will get the visits and he will spend his nights there. There haven't been any tears (other than a suspicious case of "sweaty eyes" at school the day of goodbye). But there have been prayers for Baby S that make my husband and I tear up. He talks about missing him "so so so so so so so much" (with a lot more so's, but you probably get the picture about as far along as I do, so I'll spare you). And some moments, he talks about Baby S as if he's still here, and tells us he keeps forgetting when we remind him that Baby S has moved out. He's used to the big stretches without Baby S, and the calendar is a little fuzzier for him, so it's going to take him longer to absorb what's really happened.

While I'm surprised that Big Bro's emotions don't match mine, I have no doubt that his compassion passes mine. He doesn't see all the details, and he's genuinely happy for a job well done. He says he wants more foster brothers and sisters. So if you're thinking about fostering and wondering if it would be too painful for your older children - I can say that I have been amazed at the strength and compassion of our 4-year-old. It is beyond what I could have expected. I wouldn't take these experiences away from him for a minute. He is absolutely, undoubtedly, better at this than I am. And having him here with us, a joy and a bit of hope in the hard places of unknown and goodbye, is a blessing and gift beyond description.

It's going to be a long process. We are going one baby step, one day at a time. Life on this side of goodbye doesn't really have any fewer unknowns. So we just live in each day. Some days, we move and laugh and talk about next time. Some days, we let ourselves shut down just a little. Sometimes Big Bro and I don't come right home after we're out, because I don't want to see the too-empty apartment or eat lunch with an empty chair that should have a booster seat in it. We just call it a day at a time.

We're figuring out how to grieve someone who is only gone for us, how to move out forever someone who might actually need us again someday. We're grieving, too, the changes that will come for Baby S under his new normal. He will not be the same. He is going through something painful and traumatic, and he has fewer ways to cope than we do. With our other goodbyes, we did not have follow-up with the children. That was its own kind of pain. While seeing Baby S again is joyful, it brings along a different sadness and a lot of extra goodbyes (he still gets so happy and thinks he's coming home when he sees us). Returning to a birth family is a goal to strive for; but things are sadder and a bit more confusing when the child doesn't remember another family before the foster family. This is not so much "going back" as "starting out" for him.

We probably won't get grieving just right. Saying goodbye doesn't get easier for me each time, but I do gain more tools for coping. So we are really and truly okay, and part of that is smiling and laughing and making more memories, and part of that is curling up and crying with one of Baby S's loveys every now and then. We continue to try to love on him and Birth Parent, and we appreciate your prayers as we go through the joys and pains of working alongside a birth family reunited, and watching the sadness and heaviness of this transition for our baby.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Baby S Went Home Today

Baby S returned to his mother today.

Starting today there is a car seat in our van without a passenger.
There is a crib that nobody will be sleeping in.
There are toys that will not go played with.
There is one particular car ramp that won't be seeing any races.
There is a spot at the table that will be empty.
There is a sink that will have far fewer dishes.
A special nighttime song will go unsung.
Mornings will start an hour later than they used to and bedtimes will be an hour shorter.
Family movie nights will be less frantic.
Going to the store will be less of an adventure.
There is baby shampoo that will sit unused.
And a bath towel.
And mittens.
And a hat.
And boots.
And a raincoat.

His favorite possession? His toothbrush, oddly enough. That went with him. But now there are only three in the cup by the sink.

Over a year and a half in our home comes to an end.
There is a young boy without his younger brother to follow him around.
There is a dad without his youngest wrestling partner.
There is a mother without her baby.
There is a cat that is likely happy about it all. (We really can't tell either way)

We hear people say, "We couldn't do foster care because we'd love them too much to give them back."

But you would love them enough to give them a safe, consistent, caring home when they need it, wouldn't you?

If you think we do foster care because we are strong, then you should come see us in the days before each of the times our foster son was supposed to leave. You'll see a home where we've given up on cleaning, because sitting on the floor and playing is more important. You'll see a couple lying awake and talking because it's too hard to sleep. You'll see two people that simply can't hold it together. Certain toys are just catalysts for sobbing sessions. Still other toys are reminders of a broken world filled with ineffective systems (which leads to further sobbing).

If you think we do foster care because we have something in us that others don't have, then you haven't seen us answer at length the "Why do you do foster care?" question. You'll see a "tough guy" take long pauses and extra breaths trying to say, without tears and as succinctly as possible, why these kids need it. You'll see a mom, unable to hold onto the children she has called her own, find some reason why the pain is good despite her maternal instincts screaming otherwise.

We are far from capable. Very far from capable. We get frustrated too easily. We get annoyed too quickly. We are more cynical than ever. And we find no hope for the future in this world.

We are NOT foster parent material.

So why bother?

Simply put, there is a gap. A very large gap. Between what the world should be and what the world actually is.

These kids can come with all of their possessions in a trashbag. We keep extra duffle bags in our closet. They will leave our home with dignity.

These kids might already feel like an outsider. We keep full wardrobes for many different sizes. They will leave knowing they were one of our kids.

These kids have left what they know and been thrown into a stranger's home. We will tirelessly remind people that this is the same child as last time. They will leave knowing that our home was a constant in their lives.

These kids have likely experienced trauma that many of us will never face. We will sob at night and "get it out of our system" by morning. They will leave knowing they had someone to hold them and someone to cry on.

These kids might not have had even their basic needs met. We will always keep random canisters of baby formula in our cupboard and plenty of food in our fridge. They will leave knowing they always had what they needed.

So we will stand in that gap. We will do all that we can to build the bridge between what should be and what is.

We love them too much NOT to take them. Because they need the love more than I need to avoid the heartache of saying goodbye.

Their lives are messy. So we will choose to wade into the mess.

That's what Christ did for us.