Small Things, Great Love

"You look like you've got your hands full!"

I'm never quite sure how to respond to this comment that I often hear when I'm braving the grocery store or the post office with my five-year-old and three-year-old daughters and eight-month-old foster son.  People say this even when everybody is "doing good listener", in the words of my three-year-old.

In these moments, I usually chuckle awkwardly and move on, but inwardly I wonder if I really look that ragged or incapable of managing the children in my home.

small things great love

Truth be told, my hands are full.  I love these small humans, but the weight of them often feels impossible to carry without dropping something or someone.  My heart is big, but my capacity is small.  

We recently received an email from our foster care agency, advertising a vacancy at one of the houses in their foster community.  These homes are specifically built for foster families who want to take in at least five foster children at a time (in addition to any biological or adopted children they may already have).  My heart immediately jumped at this opportunity, but my head quickly followed, and I knew that we couldn't make the move.

Our friends did.  I've lost count of how many children they have living with them at any given time.  It's a lot.  And they do it with such grace.  

Currently, our home is only open to babies, and we only take one at a time.  It's easy to feel defeated when I see these single moms who foster challenging teenagers, or the young families like us who take in large sibling groups.  It feels as though we aren't doing enough.  My hands are full with only one extra child, and I wonder if we are possibly making any sort of difference in the world as we "only, only, only..."

When I was a teacher, I was often reminded of The Starfish Story.  Do you know that one?  A young boy is walking along a beach covered with thousands of starfish.  Every few feet, he bends down to pick up a starfish and throw it back into the ocean.  An older man walks past the boy and stops to ask him what he is doing. 

"I'm picking up these starfish and throwing them back into the ocean so they can live," replies the boy.

"But there are thousands of starfish on this beach; how could you possibly make a difference?" the man asks.

Again, the boy bends down, picks up a starfish, and throws it back into the ocean.  "It made a difference for that one," he tells the man.

For that one.

I can't change the world.  I can't fix this broken system.  But I can continue to do small things with great love for this little life that God has placed in our home.

I can wake up and change eight diapers a day, clean spit-up, feed him another bottle, and throw in a fourth load of laundry (from today).  These are small things.  But I’m crazy enough to believe that those little acts, done with love, may forever change the trajectory of his life. 

Sometimes the small things feel big.  It feels big that random people are constantly in and out of our house, scrutinizing our parenting and assessing for safety.  It feels big that he's on WIC, so I pick through the baby food shelves like a fool who doesn't know what's what (because I don't) and then wait for the cashier to hand me my 17 receipts (literally 17; one for each item purchased) while everyone in line behind me watches and waits.  It feels big that we've stripped away everything but the essentials from our budget and our schedules so that we can provide well for Little Man.  It feels big to ask for help, to say "no" over and over and over again, and to be misunderstood. 

These are things I want to do for him, things that I've been called to do.  Sometimes these big-feeling-small-things are easy to perform with delight.  Often, they feel like dying.   

Dying so that he can have life. 

This is the gospel.  I don't live it out perfectly or even well, but I hope that one day, K and his parents see and know that I did these small things because of the Greatest Love that was shown to me in the face of Jesus.  With that perspective held in the forefront of my mind, the small things do feel less big ... but never insignificant.  

I Want Her to Have You: A Letter to Biological Parents Everywhere

Hey Momma,

She's five today.

You know this.  I feel sure that you've spent her last five birthdays mourning the loss of your child as we've celebrated her with cake, presents, and balloons. 

 Photo by icon0.com from Pexels

Photo by icon0.com from Pexels

Every year, I notice more wonderful qualities about her.  She's smart, inquisitive, artistic, kind, compassionate, physically stunning, and athletic.  I did not give her these things.  I have given her a home and have done my best to provide for her needs along the way.  You gave her most of the characteristics that make my heart swell with pride when I look at her.

Sometimes I don’t understand her.  She sees the world through different lenses than I do.  Sometimes I don’t understand my biological daughter, either.  The amount of times that that child can spill something and get dirty in a day mystifies me completely ... until I listen to her father tell stories of when he was a child and did the exact same things.  When I hear about his upbringing, I can make sense of her behavior.  

I don’t hear such stories about my foster/adopted child.  So when she’s shy around new people, or meticulous about her drawings, or afraid of all costumed creatures, I don’t have any explanations for the way she operates.

I want her to have so many things.  I want her to have great friends, a happy childhood, loving teachers, faith to call her own, a man who loves and provides for her, and healthy children (eventually).  I want her to have this beautiful life, but at the end of the day, what I really want her to have is you.

I don't say this because I don't desire her or love her but because I do.  Sometimes I love her so much it hurts.  Even so, I know that you love her differently.  Not more than me, not less than me.  But you can give her a certain kind of love that I can't, because she came from you.  You two share things that she and I never will.

I’ll be honest; when I say that I want her to have you, I’m not totally sure how that is supposed to look.  Every situation is unique, and a large portion of her relationship with you is out of my hands.  In an ideal world, there would be no adoption or foster care.  I’m grateful that I have the opportunity to be “mom” to the children in my care, but the necessity of this system implies that we live in a broken world.  I get to live with and love on these kids, but certainly not because of any merit of my own.  This is not the way things should be.

What I am sure of is that a child can never have too much love.  She won’t be crushed under the weight of having two moms or dads, or extra siblings or grandparents.  And so, I want her to have you- healthy, healing, and whole- because she was yours first.

Gratefully,

A Foster and Adoptive Mom

Preferences, Convictions, and Commitment

I knew this would happen.

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I knew I'd drop my kids off at VBS at our old church every morning last week and miss that place.  I missed it bad.  My husband and closest friends could read it all over my face.

Two years ago, we became members at a different church, the church that we still attend.  Our decision was primarily fueled by the desire to stop commuting half an hour each way every week and to become part of a church body in our home community.  This change was challenging because I loved City Pres.  Had we left because we had been hurt or upset, the transition would have been easier, or at least more clear-cut.  

When we first started coming to Providence Road, I was encouraged to hear the gospel preached so emphatically and to be welcomed immediately by kind people who genuinely love Jesus.  But I missed so many other things about our old church that I struggled to worship in our new one, and still do at times.  I miss the hymns, the responsive readings, the paper order of worship that I could hold in my hands, the communion wine and the kneelers off to the side.  I miss the austere reverence that filled the building and the beauty of the building itself with that big red door, the stained glass, and the wooden arches.  I miss the size of the body and the variety of ages found in it.  I miss those sweet people, many who we've known for twelve years, many who walked with us through the most difficult season of our life together and watched as we renewed our vows in that 100-year-old sanctuary.  

What I have had to realize is that most of the things I miss about City Pres are truly preferences and not convictions.  We are convicted that we need to be in a church in Norman where the gospel is proclaimed boldly and shown to be essential in the lives of the church members and leaders.  That's it.  When Christ stands at the head of a church, all of the minor issues can go.  There is value in finding a place and remaining committed to it, even when more comfortable places exist.  If everyone quit things as soon as they became uncomfortable, no one would ever have children, finish school, runs marathons, or remain married.  

This is not to say that I've had any easy time dying to my preferences in honor of my convictions.  But, He does help my heart.  Two years later, I can honestly say that although I still miss City Pres, I love Providence Road!  As I've slowly loosened my hold on what I want, He has shown me how the gospel can break down all sorts of barriers to give what is needed, namely God himself.  I can love and serve at this church because it is His church and my preferences are secondary to His kingdom. 

5 Stars: Clinging to the only reviews that truly matter

5 stars

I'm an Achiever.

I didn't need an Enneagram test to tell me this, or possibly to tell you this either.  But since I'm an Achiever, I took the test anyway.

Ambitious.

Competent.

Driven.

Status-conscious.

Overly concerned with their image and what others think of them.

I have been this way ever since I can remember.  I drive myself into the ground to prove to myself, but mostly to others, that I am capable.  Worthy.  Accomplished.  5 stars.

This perfectionism plays itself out in virtually every area of my life.  I've convinced myself that I need to earn a 4.0, to qualify for the Boston Marathon, to wear a certain size of clothes, and to have those 5 yellow stars next to my name on the dogsitting website, on our AirBnB listing, and in my Etsy shop.

Reviews make or break me.

I didn't realize this until recently, when I mused aloud to my husband, "It would absolutely crush me if I got one bad rating on Rover (the dogsitting app)."

The words didn't sound so flat and absurd when they were just swirling around in my head.

"Really?" he asked.  "You let the opinions of others hold that much power over you?"

Yeah, I guess I do.  Or at least, I have.  I'm trying to turn a new leaf.

The thing is, I love caring for people's pets and humans and hosting travelers in our home.  I love hand lettering, writing, and crafting.  I want to excel at those things.  But admittedly, I often crave excellence so that people will notice and so that those 5 little stars remain perfectly filled.  Rarely ever do I work hard for the sole purpose of doing a good job.

More often than not, the most important jobs are unrated.  Nobody is handing out stars for being a great mom, wife, or friend.  Unfortunately for me, this can mean that these most important roles are shoved to the back burner to make room for less important but more visible ones.

On the rare occasions when my priorities are properly aligned, I still seek positive reviews and perfect ratings in places where they don't always exist.  

This is especially true in my role as a mom.  I take my kids to do fun activities, but it's more for my sake than for theirs.  I tend to care about my appearance (on social media and otherwise) at the expense of their little hearts.

When we were going through the application and home study process to become certified as a foster family, the case worker interviewed our five-year-old.  One of the questions presented was, "What do you like to do with your family?"

"I just like to be together with them," she answered simply. 

She always gives some variation of this answer when asked a similar question.  She never names "the Instagram moments," such as the zoo, the splash pad, or even our vacations.  "I just like to snuggle with Mommy on the couch," she says.

present over perfefct

My husband doesn't care if I'm a 4.0 student.  My friends don't care if I'm an AirBnB Superhost.  My daughters don't care if I'm the perfect Etsy shop owner or marathoner.  In fact, they don't even care if I'm the perfect mom.  They only care that I'm their mom.  

It's time to start letting those closest to me tell me who I am instead of striving for admiration that is fickle and fading.

My favorite book is East of Eden (John Steinbeck) when I have to name an adult book and You Are Special (Max Lucado) when it is permissible to name a kids' book.  

In You Are Special, the wooden Wemmick people walk around all day, giving each other ugly gray dot stickers or beautiful star stickers.  They make judgments about each other and hand out stickers accordingly.  Everyone wants to have tons of stars.  (This sounds familiar.)  One Wemmick, Lucia, has neither stars nor dots because "the stickers only stick if you let them".  Since Lucia cares only what her Maker thinks of her, she is able to let go of perfection and competition and discover true freedom.  

In the words of John Steinbeck, "Now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good."

Good. 

That's a perfect goal for me.

15 Things I Learned From Our First Foster Placement

foster care

I am convinced that no amount of training could ever prepare anyone for the realities of foster care.  We sat and listened to knowledgeable, wise, experienced people talk about fostering for hours ... and then we jumped in ... and I realized that listening and knowing are not at all the same.

We fostered our first little girl for 4.5 months, and I'm a completely different person after doing so.  There are a million things that I wish people would have told us at the beginning of our journey, and a million things that they probably did tell us before either of us truly had ears to hear them.  We are planning to regroup and do respite care before jumping back into fostering full time in the fall, but we will make some changes next time based on the lessons below that we learned from K.

* * *

1. Ask for and accept help, including respite.  Foster care is a constant exercise in humility, and it is the first time that I have begun to understand the expression, "It takes a village to raise a child".  You cannot do this alone.  There are people who genuinely want to help, but they may not know how.  Ask for specifics, and graciously accept them when they come.  Some things that were especially helpful to us included meal trains, a housekeeper, practicalities for K including pull-ups and clothes, babysitting, random cups of coffee or bottles of wine, and time away from fostering.  We occasionally needed a date night to reconnect as a couple or a weekend to reconnect with our girls.  Everyone needs this.  Taking a break and leaning on others are not signs of weakness.

2. Don't expect people to understand foster care generally or your placement specifically.  This was a big one for me.  Sometimes when I would discuss the hard realities of living with K, people would only see the cute little pigtailed blonde and give me a blank stare ... or worse, a hurtful, unhelpful comment.  I viewed fostering with different eyes before we actually fostered, so I try to remember this and show grace to others.  I cannot expect people to comprehend a situation that they have never experienced.

3. Ask questions before accepting placement.  Our home had been approved for six days before we accepted placement for the first phone call from DHS.  Granted, K had never been in custody before, so many of the questions that we might have thought to ask possibly could not have been answered.  However, we will need to know more than the child's age and the reason that she was placed in custody before we move forward next time.  This is not being picky; this is being wise when there are other children in your home to consider.

4. Find other foster families.  Friends, family members, church members, and coworkers can give a certain degree of support on the journey, but no one can provide the same level of understanding or encouragement that other foster families can.  Get in a positive support group (not all are positive; some tend to turn into complaining sessions) and find another foster parent with whom you can safely vent and also rejoice weekly, daily, or as often as needed.

5. Just because a child needs a home does not mean that you have to give him one.  Guilt is not a good reason to do anything!  You must consider you own family and your mental health before you can think about providing a home for a child.  It really is okay (and best for the child, honestly) to say that you will not accept children of certain ages or with certain types of needs.  Your call to fostering does not imply that every child will be a good fit.

6. Let go of any and all illusions of control.  DHS and the court system do not care about you or your opinion as a foster parent, even though you are the one who spends more time with your foster child than anyone else.  You cannot control any of the decisions that are made about your foster child while she is in your care, and you do not get to determine how long she stays with you or where she goes next.  This can be maddening, but it is the way of the system.  The sooner you are able to accept that and move on, the better.

7. Have zero expectations.  Do not have expectations about your case worker, about which things will be hard, about how your foster child will wake up in the morning, about how helpful (or not) people will be, about how much information you will be given, or about anything else related to foster care.  More likely than not, your expectations will be incorrect.  And there is no quicker path to discouragement than unmet expectations.

8. It is okay to have limitations, and it is wise to know what they are.  Throughout our first placement, I had moments of feeling inferior to other foster parents who routinely accepted sibling groups, medically fragile children, and children with more significant special needs than the ones K had.  Everyone is wired differently, and everyone's family looks differently, so the person who is most capable of determining limits for your family is you.  Yes, that other foster family may have six children and be fostering a sibling group with medical needs.  They are not you.  You alone can determine how many and what type of children to accept.  If you can be a safe, loving space for one "typical" child, that is one child whose life will be forever changed because you said "yes".  

9. Use an agency.  I can't say this enough times.  Using an agency is no cost to you, and it is the agency's job to make sure that foster parents have what they need to be successful.  Not only did our agency provide us with tangible items that we needed for K, but they gave us a voice.  The state's job is to find safe homes for children, so DHS workers can have a way of putting pressure on foster parents to take in more children or to keep a child beyond the family's breaking point.  Our agency always made sure that we were informed and cared for so that we could continue providing for K, without falling apart ourselves.

10. Foster care is consuming.  Emotionally, financially, in regard to your schedule, physically, and in every other way possible ... foster care will impact your entire life.  There is no real way to prepare for this; you just have to know that it is true.

11. You will grow.  The child in your care will grow, too, but not nearly as much as you will.  I see so many things with new eyes, and my capacity to love and serve has grown infinitely in just a few months.  K taught me so much that I could not have learned any other way.

12. The daily sacrifices matter and are worth it, even if you don't ever see the results of them until the child leaves.  Actually, you might not ever see the results.  And that is not the point, because foster care is not about you.  

13. Self-care is actually important.  It is not selfish to get a pedicure or join a gym that has childcare.  You cannot take care of others unless you are in a healthy mental state.  Taking care of your core family is important, too.  It is not cruel to take your own children on a short trip or have a "family night in" while leaving your foster child in the hands of a capable caregiver.  As much as I always wanted K to feel included in our family, at the end of the day, she was not technically part of our family.  Our girls were often put on the back burner during the last few months so that we could take K to therapy and family visitation, and really just so that we could meet the basic and special needs of this child in our care.  Our girls are two and four, so we were asking a lot of them.  They, too, need to be in healthy mental states and feel connected to and loved by us.  We were given the task of parenting them long before we were called to parent K.

14. Goodbye will be hard.  When you love someone, it is inevitably difficult to let them go.  We knew that K's moving on was in the best interest of everyone, but watching her walk out of our front door was one of the most heartwrenching moments I've ever experienced.  I cried my eyes out that day, and I'm still crying about certain memories of her after a few days of her absence.  Even though the days felt impossibly trying and even though we are hopeful about her new home, we are grieving a great loss.  Maybe a few weeks down the road, I won't get teary when I find her tiny shirt in the laundry or when her name is mentioned, but for now, I'm going to let myself grieve.  {As a side note, I will always, always, always make sure that a child has his or her own suitcase before leaving my home.  Trash bags are not suitcases.} 

15. God always shows up.  I cannot tell you the amount of times when I thought that I could not possibly make it through another moment, yet He carried me through.  I also never doubted that K was supposed to be with us because of the way certain things about her placement were timed and orchestrated.  I do not have endless patience or wisdom, but He does, and He continued to make that evident through foster care.

* * *

My husband and I have looked at each other multiple times in the last few days since K's departure and asked ourselves, "Are we crazy for wanting to do this again?"  Maybe we are.  Probably we are.  But as long as we both continue to feel called to this hard and beautiful adventure, we'll take what we have learned this time and continue to welcome children into our home.  I hope that we can teach them half as much as our first placement has taught us.