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.