Saturday, December 23, 2017

Missing Christmas

"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others."
Philippians 2:3‭-‬4

What would you give up for someone else?
Would you give up seeing Santa at the mall?
Would you give up sleepovers by the Christmas tree?
Would you give up frosting cookies?
Would you give up an evening with friends?
Would you give up listening to Christmas music?
Would you give up Christmas dinner?

We can give up good things for others in love, but sometimes when our children need us to give up those good things, we feel guilt. We want to help our family feel normal. We want to help them enjoy all of the pieces of Christmas we always used to enjoy. We want to experience the traditions we always envisioned in the days before children.

Missing good things for your children who can't cope is not failing your child, your family or yourself. It is living out the nature of Jesus, who "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!" (Philippians 2:7-8)

No more guilt this year. If you can't do the things you wish you could, give them to Jesus as a sweet sacrifice. It's not that you're not doing Christmas well enough. It's that you are taking this opportunity to value others above yourself. You're not missing Christmas. You're willing to find it even when it means letting go of a lot of fun little pieces that were not really Christmas anyway.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Planting Marigolds

We have our good days and our bad days around here.

Everyone has days they're simply not their best. Sometimes I wake up and I just know that every moment of self-control today will cost me a whole lot of effort because I'm ready to throw up my hands from the beginning.

I think for Baby S and for other kids who have suffered trauma and/or have a lot of other factors playing against them, self-control takes ready-to-throw-up-my hands level effort every day. Thus, having a good day is something to be incredibly proud of. It's also straight up exhausting for them. So sometimes that good day, or group of good days, results in a lot of really difficult days. It's like they can take an advance on self-control and then wind up empty for days or weeks.

Hard days can be so deflating. Regression is discouraging for all of us, including Baby S. Going from dry diapers all day to not using the potty a single time from morning to night is frustrating. It's hard not to say "you can do this because you did it yesterday!" even when I know that's not fair. There are some days that he's simply not able to do the same things he's been doing. (He's three, so there are plenty of days he's choosing to do wrong, but I'm drawing a distinction between the days he's choosing to be naughty and the days he's not able to regulate enough to make a choice.)

We're noticing a cycle. A couple of great days with big win moments will almost certainly be followed by another round of regression. We don't know when we wake up in the morning or sit down to breakfast whether it's going to be a good-listening day or a behavior-filled day; whether I'll be able to do a load of laundry without another adult in the house or whether there's a 27-second countdown before things fall apart when I've left the room.

This weekend we had an incredible couple of days. Our little guy really shines through in these moments. His smiles melt me to pieces. He giggles and laughs and interacts and chats and just absolutely blows me away. These are glimmers into who he really is, who he was always supposed to be, and who he is becoming. I am always proud of him, but even more so in these moments.

And then this morning we were back to difficult behaviors. This (finally) didn't surprise me because I'm figuring out the cycle a little better. But it's still hard to feel so out of control about what we can do as a family on a given day. We don't know what we can reasonably expect out of Baby S and what will be out of his reach.

As I struggled with not knowing how long the downward spiral might last, I looked out my window into my backyard. And I noticed these flowers.

The baby wasn't chilling out there during said moment. Just so you know.
We don't leave babies wandering in the backyard alone.

These flowers were a gift to me from Baby S on Mother's Day. They were just bitty little green things sticking out of a red plastic cup decorated with stickers.

When he gave them to me I pretended to be excited, but inside I was grimacing. I was there the day he planted those seeds. It was a special activity for parents to attend at Baby S's preschool. I found childcare for Big Bro for the afternoon and brought along Baby Gigi in her stroller. We sat together with Baby S and his class on the grass in the shade of a tree.

Right on cue, another class came out with a ball. A BALL. During Baby S's time of maximum obsession with anything round. They decided to play with said ball RIGHT NEXT TO US. They were HITTING IT WITH A BAT. AND RUNNING. All of Baby S's favorite things in one place. He was mega excited.

And then we told Baby S he couldn't go there. And then we told him to sit quietly and do a fine motor activity.

And he said, "Heck no!" Not in words, you know, because pretty much his only word was "Ball" (which he screamed at full volume on repeat). His meltdown pretty much lasted until they left... Which was when it was time for us to go.

We managed to get him to focus just long enough to scoop some dirt into the red cup and throw some seeds on top. There were marigold seeds, mixed wildflowers, and at least one other kind. The spray bottle was a good distraction for a moment while he was watering the flowers, but then he had to pass that to the next kid, and it was maximum meltdown time again.

And the wind was blowing the dirt in my eyes. And I wanted to melt down too.

So in summary... It was a disaster. He didn't have fun. I didn't have fun. Baby Gigi didn't get my attention. I had to cash in on a babysitting offer with Big Bro, and those are valuable and not to be wasted.

I didn't realize until this morning that something beautiful came from that disaster of an afternoon. The splash of orange along my fence that makes me smile as I do the dishes... The smile Baby Gigi gives me as she touches the flowers and enjoys their soft feel (and taste, but don't worry, Google says they're not poisonous)... The fun Big Bro and Baby S and I have watering them together with the hose... All of these things came from that rather terrible afternoon.

I'd like to think that this pretty bunch of flowers in my yard is just a glimpse of deeper things that came from that day and many days like it. So often we don't get to see what was at work on the most discouraging of days. We don't get to see how God will use our sacrifices for our good and the good of those around us.

But sometimes we get little glimpses. I think we need to hold onto them. One of my favorite bits of wisdom from Paul and Timothy in their letter to the church in Philippi is this: "[be] confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus."

Try not to lose that confidence, friends. The dark days and downward cycles will come, but they are not the end. We can't always see what is growing in those moments. But I pray that God will faithfully use them for good, and I trust that he will keep his promises.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

To The Moon

This morning, Big Boy Baby S asked me to give him wings and help him get to the moon.

More specifically, he wanted me to attach wings to his arms. Then he could bounce off of the trampoline and fly up to the moon!

He expressed a hugely abstract thought through his words, sounds and gestures. He beamed when I understood him. He laughed and grinned as I flew him "to the moon" on his little airplane.

A year ago, he wouldn't make eye contact. His smile was MIA. And now he's dreaming about flying off to space with wings, and being up in the sky in an airplane, and driving a big tractor.

He's a three-year-old boy and he can finally share his sweet visions and ideas with us. I love it.

Baby S, I can't get you to the moon, but if you still want to go there when you're big, I believe YOU can get you there! I love you, big guy! I'm so proud of you!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

When We Met You

Three years.

It has been three years since we met our little man Baby S.

We'd said two quick goodbyes already to foster babies, and we were starting to think they'd all be quick goodbyes. But this one wasn't.

Baby S's birthday rolls around in June and we celebrate his achievements and how big he is getting (so big!). We celebrate him, and we celebrate knowing him. And then this day rolls around six weeks later, and we're reminded that we aren't his only family. Someone else did those first six weeks with him.

We have a set of memories from this day: getting the call while I was checking out at Wegmans; Big Bro A choosing that moment and that particular phone call to see if he could get my full attention by opening and dumping an entire box of elbow macaroni; going out to lunch to celebrate Big Bro A's successful potty training efforts while we waited to find out if Baby S would really enter care; going to a tall building in the city and waiting outside to meet our little guy; driving a baby home in our spare carseat without having had a chance to really get a good look at him yet. The onesie with the little ducks. The first bottles. The precious moment when Big Bro first held his new little brother. The pictures we always take so we can be prepared if we're still telling these stories when our baby turns twenty or if our baby leaves the next day and we only have pictures and memories left.

This is our story of that day. We'll tell that story with joy. But we'll always tell it with reservation, too. We have only bits and pieces of the other stories from that day. We weren't the only ones involved. Our gain was another's loss. Our sweet hello was the start of a nightmare for another. This relationship evolved over time into something positive, into a team effort to love on a little boy who is certainly lovable enough to hold all of that love, but it started as someone losing a baby to strangers.

I've said goodbye to foster babies. I've watched them get driven away by strangers. Even with time to prepare, printed schedules and notes and a bag of his favorite bottles and pacis and blankies and clothes, you can never feel prepared for that moment when your child leaves and is no longer under your protection. Baby S's family didn't have the ability to prepare in this way. Trying to imagine the pain of watching that car drive away is staggering.

There is so much joy in the day we met Baby S. It would be wrong not to smile and celebrate when this day rolls around. It's the day we gained a son! But we want to honor his birth family by telling him their side of this story as he gets old enough to process it. We want to validate their experience by remembering their pain. Their pain in this moment is a testimony of their love, and someday, Baby S is going to need to hear us tell him about that love again and again as he wrestles with his reality. He's going to need the stories, quotes and pictures from birth family that we've saved for him over the years. He's going to need us to handle our baggage now so we can help him with his when the time comes. However painful this journey continues to be for us, it is his life and his family. He needs to be able to process this openly without worrying about my feelings.

This is not a one-sided story. Foster care and adoption never are. God's redemption is beautiful, and we will celebrate it, but we will not forget those who are still hurting.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Happy Birthday, Baby S!

We are celebrating Baby S's third birthday this week.

I am much more emotional leading up to this than I ever expected. I mean, I'm frequently an emotional hot mess, so it shouldn't be surprising, but I still caught myself off guard when I started sniffling and gushing sentimentally in my head over all the little things this weekend.

We try to make kid birthdays a big deal in our house. Josh and I decided that we would do birthdays big when we got into foster care. We realized that we might have a child in our care some day who had never celebrated birthdays before and we wanted to make sure they'd have a special day devoted just to them. Knowing there would be a lot of very hard moments meant that we needed to be prepared to party hard when there were causes for celebration. And now, we realize just how hard it is just to get through each day sometimes, and stacking 365 of those days together is certainly a very big deal!

The rest of this is for Baby S as I celebrate his third birthday. You are welcome to tag along, friend, but know that this is my heart for my little boy today!

Baby S, today I am celebrating you. Today I am writing to you so that future you knows how very proud your Mommy and Daddy are of you. I want you to know that you are so very loved. You are so very wanted. You belong. You are an incredible little boy.

Baby S, your birthday is a big deal because you are a rock star. You have gone through more than most adults I know, yet you are the most joy-filled person I have ever met. You are motivated by your love for those around you. You want to be smiling! You want to make friends. You hold no hard feelings against people who have caused you past pain. You love so unconditionally. You play with every kid at the playground, and when they feel uncomfortable around you and don't know how to act, you keep inviting them and keep smiling even as you're asking me why they won't come and play. You don't dislike children for treating you differently. You just keep loving them and keep smiling until they give in and realize what a sweet, fun little guy you are!

You are a rock star because you don't compare yourself to others. Your brain and your mouth fight as you try to make the sounds you are thinking, but you're never upset that Baby Gigi is making those same sounds already, and you love that Big Brother A can tell you so many things. You've been fighting against trauma and change for forward progress your whole life, but you've never given up, because you are strong. You are capable. You want to grow and you will work relentlessly to do so! And you are going to make it. The past six months have been incredible. I am blown away by your progress already! I mean, Dude, yesterday morning you begged me to bring you to McDonald's on your way to school! How is that even happening??!

As if burgers weren't reason enough to love this place, you've now learned that sometimes McDonald's has a giant playground full of happy children. Why would you ever want to be anywhere but here?!

Your birthday is a big deal because you've gone through challenges no three-year-old should already have faced, yet you find the energy and the willpower to fight for self-control. There are grown-ups who choose not to exercise self-control because of what they've been through, but not you. You want to make your life good!  I love you so much for that. I celebrate that about you and with you! Thank you for letting Daddy and I push you harder than anyone else, and thank you for responding so positively to our pushing. Thank you for growing! Thank you for letting us love you by believing that you are going to make it.

You are amazing for your love of other people. You are amazing for your trust. Again, grown people aren't always as strong as you when it comes to trusting those who have caused past hurt (intentionally and unintentionally), and you are an example to me. You show me unconditional love and acceptance. You show me pure joy at seeing your people, and when it's hard to be happy to see someone, you fight to make new positive memories, because that's just so you. You worry for the happiness of others who seem sad. "Cry" was one of your first words, and you go to comfort people who are hurting. You, who couldn't stand still long enough to know someone was in front of you and used to plow straight through people in your path just six months ago! You are resilient and loving and incredible.

You fight for your developmental milestones, but you're still a three-year-old boy! I love that about you. I love that you pick up spiders and laugh when they try to run away because you like catching them again. I love that you like worms and digging in the dirt. I love that you want to pick up every stick we see when we're walking. I love that you are obsessed with Lightning McQueen ("eeeen!") and all of his friends. I love that you love dogs so devotedly and that it makes your morning every time you see one outside during breakfast! (No, buddy, we're not getting one, even though Big Brother A did say that getting a dog would be the best birthday present ever for you. He's right, but Mommy doesn't like dogs. Thanks for loving me through that one, too, buddy!)

You sleep through the night. You love your family. You have favorite toys. You sit and eat balanced meals, try new foods, and randomly refuse things you used to love like any kid your age. You eat with your spoon and (sometimes) drink from an open cup. These are skills that you had to fight for. Some of these are rights that you had to fight for. But you don't hold any resentment; only joy. I love that about you. I celebrate that about you!

Everyone who works with you knows that you are special. You have a light and an energy that is beyond normal. It's beautiful and incredible. When kids ask what is different about you, I hope that is what they settle on, because it is what blows me away. God has uniquely made you into a precious gift that will just absolutely change the world, little man. People feel loved when you smile at them. They feel joy when they see you light up. They want to know you more and they see that you are worth fighting for. And even though sometimes you are a *little* difficult, life is always better with you than without you! That's not just me saying that, buddy, but everyone who works with you.

I love you because your hard things are there, and they are hard, but they don't define you. I love that you are so resilient, so capable of healing. For a little while, when you were gone, your light was almost out. That was one of the scariest and most devastating things I have ever experienced. I'm sorry for all you've gone through, but I can honestly say that the picture I have of you in my mind - unresponsive, uninvested, joyless - that picture will always make every single beautiful moment a thousand times more beautiful for me. That picture will be the difference between "that was neat" and suddenly realizing I'm crying again. Almost losing you helps me to appreciate having you. I don't mean losing you to another home - no, buddy, we were truly on you and your birth parent's team, and we weren't wishing failure on you. I mean almost losing that joyful little person inside who fills our hearts with a thousand times more energy and joy than I ever thought a single person could bring. So today, as I celebrate you, every victory is multiplied in my mind. Every battle you have won means even more. When I say I am proud of you, little man, multiply that by one thousand, too, and maybe you'll start to catch a glimpse of what I see when I see you.

No blog post could ever capture my love for you, buddy. No words could show future you the joy you bring into every room. So all I can say in conclusion, is that I am incredibly blessed and joyful to be celebrating this year with you. I love you to the moon and back, sweet boy.

With all my love,

Monday, May 22, 2017

Letting Him Fail

We've now reached six months of having Baby S back with us.

His needs are still constant, but they are changing. He's growing so much. Our expectations for him have evolved drastically.

We can say things like, "Use your spoon!" and he'll stop shoveling milky cereal with his fingers and use his spoon instead. We can say "That wasn't nice! It's Baby Gigi's turn," and he'll give back the toy and pat her on the head - sometimes even with a swipe at his chest with his hand to sign "sorry." We can say "No flipping the light switch, buddy. Either on or off," and he'll (generally) push once or twice more, pick a direction, and then trot away to play somewhere else. At the very least, he chooses to disobey with a sly smile and obvious defiance, and we silently celebrate behind our stern faces because that is what a healthy little boy does.

I know I keep saying this, but when Baby S first came back, we had to constantly manage him for basic survival. Don't vault over the baby gate. Don't throw yourself down the stairs head first. Don't sit on the baby. Don't grab at knives. Don't run into the hot stove. Don't shove other people in the face with all of your strength. (He's strong enough to cause actual damage to a grown man. Ask Josh.) Our commands were direct, to the point, and always urgent. We were always a moment from disaster, for Baby S or those around him.

The problem is that Baby S thrives on chaos. His favorite game is chase. He's smart, and he's learned that certain adults will reward his disobedience with exactly the game he's craving. Tell him to put back the fragile glass thing he picked up, and he'll laugh and run full speed across the room so he can watch you huffing and puffing after him. Even after all of our training, he'll revert back to disobey-and-chase in an instant when he knows it will work. So when he returned, we had to engage for his safety, but always with the goal of backing off whenever it wasn't actually dangerous to do so. We had to give him the extra split second to obey BEFORE engaging in chase. After many many of those little moments of hesitation with no real guarantee that growth was happening, Baby S finally started putting his foot forward and oooooh soooooo sloooooowly coming when called to stop his mischief, and we praised Jesus for a turning point that had seemed impossible.

We've been taking baby steps to forward progress for the last six months. It's a moment's hesitation after saying "stay in the yard, buddy," to give him the chance to trip back around in my direction and engage in chase in a healthy and safe way. It's letting him go toward Baby Gigi and verbally reminding him not to take, then watching to see what he does. It's asking him to stay in a room with our words rather than holding him physically on this side of the gate; then eventually expecting him to respect the gate without reminders; and now, finally, expecting him to respect consistent boundaries - no going upstairs or into the basement alone, even when the gate is down.

He started with no regard for rules or safety. It's tempting to sit back now, baby gates up and every "no" out of reach, and bask in his ability to (sometimes) listen and engage. It's tempting to say "oh, he can't listen because he has this diagnosis and he doesn't know any better." But we've seen his ability to learn and grow, and we're not satisfied with him staying where he is right now (nor is the amazing team of teachers and therapists working alongside us).

So we take turns taking him to the grocery store, even though that might mean abandoning a cart full of groceries to take him home. We bring him to the zoo and take him out of the stroller whenever there's an adult with an extra hand and a very firm grip to hold on tight. We let go of his hand for brief moments in church to see if he'll walk alongside us (he won't, but it's safe to let him try there). We let him climb to the highest places on the playground and go down the big slides.

Look, no adult hands in the picture!
(Because even being pinned in between a lion and boarded up stairs with no where to run except into an adult mega counts as increased freedom for this sweet and crazy little man.)

The victories are amazing. Some days, we don't see a lot of them. Some days we're exhausted with constantly pushing. Often I have thoughts like "Why did I think I could walk to the playground with all three kids by myself?" or "Will I ever be able to talk to someone in the lobby at church again?" In those moments I have to remind myself that this intentional process is worth it. The moments that look like failures are carefully chosen growing moments, not just for Baby S, but for all of us. Big Bro A and Baby Gigi have their own growing areas, but additionally, they're learning from the hard moments with Baby S. We're having conversations about why we choose to bring him to the good things even when we end up all having to leave. We talk about why our family can't do things we used to, or why simple things are so much harder now, and we get to remember that Jesus gave up SO. MUCH. MORE. for us than what we will ever give up for Baby S.

When we win the victories, we still have to fight the temptation to be discouraged. Social media is always there reminding us how very little our victories seem next to where Baby S should be/could be/isn't developmentally. Baby videos of him from two years ago sound strikingly like Baby S today. Successfully getting through a shopping trip with Baby S in tow is not me able to grocery shop with all of my children, or able to take my family to fast food or dinner out, or able to go on a vacation together. But we can't focus on what we haven't achieved yet. We have to keep looking back at how far we've come, keep soaking in those giant Baby S smiles and hugs, and keep praising Jesus that he waded into the mess that is OUR lives.

That's where we are for now: setting up moments when Baby S can fail, because without those, he can't have true success. We celebrate the victories hard. We crash hard sometimes, too. There are glimpses of "normal life" that are beautiful and yet leave us hungrier for the way things should have been. These moments motivate us because they remind us yet again what we're fighting for. We're fighting for our baby boy. We're so proud of him. We're so in awe of his pure joy despite his circumstances. This child has incredible potential. We wade through these difficult moments believing that some day we will look at our adult son and be in total awe over how far he has come. His loving heart and incredible energy are going to move mountains for people some day.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Treatments and Trauma

Let me paint you a picture. It's a little simplified for where we're going with it, but maybe it could help.

Your family decides to adopt a dog. You don't want a puppy from a pet shop; you want to maybe find a dog that's gone through some stuff. So you go to a shelter. The dog you bring home is so sweet and loves to snuggle up to you and your kids. There's a big problem, though. The dog keeps peeing all over your house!

This dog isn't a puppy, and you assumed it would be house trained. Nevertheless, you decide that you'll keep it and work through the issues, because it's a cute dog and your kids like it.

You have to figure out an approach that will work for this dog. You hire a trainer to come in and work with your dog to help her stop wetting the floor. The methods the trainer uses are standard and you've used them with other dogs in the past; but they're not working for this dog. In fact, the more the trainer shows up, the worse the dog gets. So you cancel the trainer.

What's your next move? You realize that this dog must have gone through some stuff before coming to you. The trainer's style was firm and direct. You try treating the dog with gentleness, thinking that maybe there has been some abuse in the dog's past. You find a trainer with experience in this area and the dog grows by leaps and bounds. As the dog feels safer, she starts using the bathroom outside. Hooray!

I don't know if there are really trauma trainers for dogs. But do you know what I keep hearing? That there really aren't trauma "trainers" for 3-year-olds.

We have been to so many specialists with Baby S. He's got a diagnosis, although we've questioned the validity of it from Day 1. He's been to the places that are hard to get into, and we've sat in rooms where they've told us about "kids like Baby S" and what to expect.

But the problem is, his behaviors never fit in. There's always a qualifier. "Oh, he doesn't do that? Usually kids like Baby S do..." or "Oh, he's been succeeding at this? Huh, kids like Baby S usually don't."

So let's think about this. We're grouping Baby S into a broad category that we know doesn't fit him. Then we're getting resources based on his label, NOT the behaviors. We know he doesn't fit into his category - so is it right to assume that he fits in to these programs?

One of the top specialists for "kids like Baby S" (note: that phrase makes me catch my breath every time) told us that they "treat the symptoms the same way, no matter why the symptoms appeared." This was in direct response to our questions about his past and how that plays into his current situation.

Did you catch that? They diagnose him with a label, then treat kids with that label the same, NO MATTER WHY THE BEHAVIORS STARTED. (Can you tell that this bothers me?)

That's like telling the owner of that dog in my silly example that of COURSE all dogs need to be trained the same way. Just keep scolding it in a firm voice. If the dog isn't responding, it's probably you, or else your dog just isn't trainable. If that was your dog, people would say that, and you'd look at them like they were nuts. This dog was abused, you'd think; of course we can't treat her like a puppy just being house trained.

But this is our child. And that is essentially what we are being told.

There's no trauma treatment for a child Baby S's age. There's no trauma therapy for a nonverbal child. There aren't resources that adequately address his delays in combination with his other areas of need, because kids his age aren't supposed to act like this.

I am consistently shocked by how often trauma doesn't even factor into the analysis of his needs. Wrapping him neatly in a couple of labels and shipping him off isn't even beginning to acknowledge the depth of his needs.

I'm having my rant moment because I want to help people to understand that children don't fall neatly into categories. Trauma is very, very messy. It can surface and then hide for a while and then resurface. Schools need labels to give services, and labels take time, but trauma doesn't pace itself with the school's systems.

Trauma comes in all different forms. I'm going to be so bold as to say that ALL children who have been fostered or adopted have some form of trauma. Trauma can happen before a child is born. It can be exposure to drugs and alcohol in utero, or mental health issues of a mother before birth. It is the separation of a child from its birth mother, even if it's instant. It's the loss of everything familiar. It's being shipped back and forth between birth parents and foster parents. It's living in a high-stress environment without permanency. It's not knowing whether you'll finish the school year in your current school, or whether you'll be able to live with your biological siblings again. It's being torn between two realities that can never exist together. It's moving back with a birth parent and losing a foster family, or staying with a foster family and losing the birth family. It's a million little moments that are constantly stacking up.

It's being treated like a "normal child" despite all of this. It's being punished for not paying attention in school, when you're spending the whole day worried because today is court and your judge might be sending you home today. It's struggling to work hard in school because you don't know if you'll still be here in a month, anyway. It's being put in a class for children with special needs and hearing the teachers tell your foster parents you'll never catch up, even if you've just been too busy trying to get your emotional needs met to grow in other areas.

Treating trauma like "normal" is rarely helpful, and it often makes things worse. I don't know the answer, but I do know the frustration of trying to advocate strongly for your child and hearing over and over that the resources just don't exist for "a child like that" because they're "not supposed to experience these things" at such a young age.

It's true. Baby S shouldn't have these difficulties to deal with. But he does. And we're doing the best we can to help them cope.

Now a moment of encouragement for all of my teacher friends. Do you know what keeps us moving? Teachers and therapists who "get" children like Baby S. Who install an extra lock on the door so that he can stop fixating on escape and start enjoying his environment. Who have his favorite toys in the classroom so he can have "preferred activities" to look forward to between the moments of pushing and stretching him to grow. Who advocate loudly with us for adequate labels, adequate services, and extra help. Who take the time to explain Baby S and what makes him tick to the people around him so that he's getting loved, appreciated, and pushed in all the best ways for him. Who tell us directly that their resource isn't right for him, but it's the closest to right that exists, so they're going to fight to make it the best environment possible for him.

You guys are our heroes. You make so much more difference than you can possibly know.

Thank you!

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

What Love Can't Do

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

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

I'm washing, folding and putting away these.

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

That's how I'm proving my love.

But seriously. That's not my point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We cannot protect him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Daily Bedtime Countdown

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

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

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

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

Running away and screaming in public is exhausting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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