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.

When love does not come easily

If I had a dollar for every time someone said the following words to me, we could probably pay off our house:

foster care love

"I could never do foster care because I'd get too attached."

I used to say that, too.

And then we did do foster care.  And I could think of a billion reasons not to do it anymore, but getting too attached was not one of them.

Can I be honest for a second?  It is really hard to love a kid who is not your own.  

There was something different about adopting our oldest, P, from birth.  I fell in love with that girl the moment I saw the top of her head in the delivery room and have loved her more every day since then.  When our foster daughter, K, walked into our home on January 6th, I immediately felt compassion toward her, but I did not feel love.  She has been with us for 107 days now, and on exactly 107 mornings, I have had to make a conscious decision to show love to her, even when I don't feel it.

People are quick to dish out advice, reminding me to love K the same way that I love my own children.  But here's the thing: She is not one of my own children.  I can treat her equally, sure, but I cannot force myself to feel a certain way.  When my own girls have meltdowns, refuse to obey, or scream in my face, I am most definitely annoyed and frustrated.  Sometimes, when K has done similar things, my blood has been absolutely boiling.  On the surface, my response is always the same, but inwardly, I have felt frustration with K to a far greater degree than I do with either C or P.  The inherent love that breeds patience isn't there with her.

For many weeks, I have been ashamed to admit this.  What is wrong with me that I am not attached and connected to her?  Am I cold-hearted?  This seems to come so easily for other people.  The problem lies in the last statement.  I cannot compare myself to the perception I have of other people who may or may not have ever been in a situation even remotely similar.

Foster care is one giant question mark.  Whether or not K will be with us in a week, a month, or a year is undecided, and we are just along for the ride.  Lately, though, it seems as if K may be moving on soon, and I've been a wreck.  The thought of her not living with us anymore has made me come to an important realization: I do love K!

Love is not a feeling.  It is absolutely, one hundred percent, a choice and a commitment that must be made over and over and over again. 

I don't get the warm fuzzies with my foster daughter like I do with my adopted and biological daughters.  But I do want the very best for her, and I'd give up almost anything to ensure that she has a happy, safe, good life with people who want those same things for her.

Loving my foster daughter has been anything but natural.  Love has not come easily, but perhaps the challenge of loving K has made my love for her more beautiful.  This love that has slowly developed over the last 107 days is deep and abiding, unchanged by her frustrating actions and by my feelings of irritation.  

We will likely only be a stop along K's path in life.  My hope is that K has experienced love in a very real way while she has been in our home, but even if she hasn't or doesn't remember ... I have. 

My own kids make me happy, and of course I love them.  (That's easy.)  But loving a child in foster care has made me understand Christ in a way that loving my own never could.  He gave his very life for infinitely frustrating people like me.  My own calling to love K pales in comparison.  So tomorrow, for the 108th time, I'll choose to wake up and commit to loving my foster daughter once again, even when love doesn't come easily.

He sees me.

There isn't one area of life that our foster daughter hasn't touched. In a little over three months, she has left a mark on our bank account, on our kitchen table, all over our schedules, in our marriage, in our parenting, and on our hearts.  She has taught us a new way to live, which I sometimes appreciate but often resent.  I feel completely spent in almost every way, almost all of the time.

For the past week and a half, teachers in Oklahoma have been on strike, which means that my four-year-old has not been at Pre-K, nor has my three-year-old foster child been attending her preschool class for kids with developmental disabilities.  Consequently, I've been home all day every day with three small humans, a job which many moms gracefully undertake whether or not teachers are on strike.  I, however, have consistently felt ill-equipped, defeated, angry, stressed, and impatient as I've had these kids at home.

Last Wednesday, K started counseling with a therapist who comes to our house.  The whole thing was an absolute disaster for an abundance of reasons that I won't discuss here.  The therapist left after a day which had already included crying, feet stomping, hitting, poopy pants, whining, breaking a bench, and screaming.  Thankfully, the weather outside that day was gorgeous, so I sent the girls to the backyard, sank to the kitchen floor, and burst into tears.  The weightiness of foster care once again hit me like a ton of bricks.

We were discussing our situation in the home of some friends recently.  We were called to be foster parents, but we often wish that we weren't.  One of our friends responded simply,

he sees me

"God sees you."

Those three words have changed everything.

When I got home later that evening, I looked up the Bible passage (Genesis 16) which inspired our friend's words to me.  To paraphrase, a woman named Sarai could not have children.  So, she told her husband to sleep with her slave, Hagar, in order to continue the family line.  Afterward, Sarai became bitter toward Hagar and severely mistreated her, so much so that pregnant Hagar ran away to the desert.  Alone, empty-handed, and afraid, Hagar met "the God who sees" by a stream in the desert.  He heard her cries of misery and promised to bring forth many powerful descendants from her.

He gave her a stream in the desert.  He gives me himself, the Fountain of living water that never runs dry.

She ran away.  He pursued her.  I try to flee from this hard calling.  He finds me, calls me by name, and speaks gently with me.  

He heard her.  He hears my feeble cries for help.

He saw her.  

He sees me!  

On the days when I'm feeling hopeless and looking for an escape, he sees me.  He sees me wiping snot for the fifty billionth time today.  He sees me struggling to love people who I do not like.  He sees me in a pile of emotions on the kitchen floor.  

He sees me with compassion and grace, just as he saw his Son in the garden thousands of years ago, sweating drops of blood.  He sees the tears and sweat and catches every drop.

Son or daughter, child of the King, He sees you, too.

Foster HOPE

"Why did you decide to do foster care?" the case worker asked me on the Monday after our first weekend with a child in our home.

foster hope

"Well, we have room in our home and love in our hearts" is the answer that I gave that day, and it's the answer that I give today if most people ask.  It's easy, and it's fairly honest. 

But about a million times a day, I have to keep coming back to the rest of the story, the other unspoken reasons for why we are foster parents.  Because about a million times a day, I question if we made the right decision.  I've done some hard things in my nearly three decades of life, and this is the hardest.  It's tough in all of the ways that I imagined it would be, plus a hundred more.  If people knew all of the ins and outs of this broken system, no one would willingly sign up for the job.

So why do it?  Why do we give up our time, our budget, our comforts, and our very lives for this little girl, and for any others who may come through our doors in the next months or years?  I can think of a few reasons, though I'm sure that there are more than the ones I'm going to list here.

1.  God tells us to do it.  As Christians, we use the Bible to guide our lives, and God tells His people over and over to care for widows and orphans.  Though I don't believe that everyone is called to be a foster family, I believe that caring for vulnerable children in some way is a calling on the lives of all followers of Jesus.  Sometimes I wish this wasn't our calling.  I want my life to be easy, and foster care is anything but that.  However, I have so clearly experienced God giving His strength and presence to those whom He has called to do His work.  He tells us to rise and say "yes" to His plans each day, so we choose (not always joyfully) to listen and obey.- for our good and His glory.  

2.  It's needed.  I realize that not everyone reading this blog is a Christian.  For you, the Bible does not provide a valid reason to participate in foster care.  Maybe statistics do, though.  There are nearly 10,000 children in Oklahoma alone who are currently placed in DHS custody.  When you woke up this morning in your own home, there were approximately 428,000 kids across the country who did not.  Those numbers are on the rise.  The number of safe, loving homes for those children is not.  Clearly, this is a problem.  

3.  Being pro-life is not simply a matter of opposing abortion.  I could say a lot on this point, but ALL lives matter.  It is unacceptable to fight for the rights of unborn children while doing nothing about the children already living among us in unsafe and abusive situations.  

4.  Foster care is not only about the child, but about the birth family, too.  We have a unique opportunity to invest in K's mom as the temporary caregivers of her daughter.  Our job is not to say, "This is how you raise kids correctly," but to come alongside her in her desire to be a good mother.  I don't think that she has had many people in her life say, "We love you and we are on your team," and we get to do that.  We don't only want a happy life for K; we want true joy for her mother, as well.  Apart from grace, I might find myself in exactly her position, and I would hope that my child's foster family would treat me with humility and compassion.  I would also hope that they would let me participate in my child's life as much as is appropriate.  

5.  We get to provide and be part of many of her "firsts".  Though she is barely three and would be experiencing lots of "firsts" regardless of her placement in foster care, we have the privilege of giving her more.  She first said her name in our car and first used a toothbrush in our bathroom.  She had her first real birthday party last weekend and her first experience with "school" last week.  We don't do these things to try to prove that we are great parents.  We do them because, for the next week or month or year, she is part of our family, and this is what we do with our own children.  While these "firsts" sometimes seem tedious or expensive, I feel blessed that we get to see them and sad that her mother does not.

6.  Foster care can help to break cycles of abuse, incarceration, and addiction.  The more I learn of K's story, the better I understand why she is the way she is.  She faces many of the same issues that her mom does, as do her grandmother, great-grandmother, aunts, and uncles.  Ideally, K's mom can get the help she needs and bring K back into a safe and loving home, thus giving K a better life than the one she had and breaking a generational cycle.  If not, perhaps we can humbly show K that although her birth family will always be her family, she does not have to continue in some of the destructive patterns that she has perceived to be "normal".     

7.  We do it for our kids.  Sometimes people ask us if foster care affects our own children, and it definitely does.  It affects all of us, but probably not in the negative ways that others envision.  Do our girls have to learn to share some of their things and give up some of their comforts?  Yes.  Do they receive a little less of our attention with the addition of this third child?  Yes.  Do they, like us, have to show patience and kindness when K doesn't follow the rules of our home because she has been raised differently for nearly three years?  Absolutely.  These are difficult lessons for our whole family, but they are good lessons that need to be learned.  Though our girls are two and four, they can do hard things.  I truly believe that, while they are being stretched, our kids are also being molded into more gracious children, as we are being stretched and hopefully being molded into more loving parents.  There have been numerous days when I have felt that they are more sacrificial and understanding than we are.

8.  She's changing, but really I am the one who is.  I can easily become frustrated that our foster daughter does not use manners, go to the bathroom, or comprehend the unspoken rules of our family.  The longer she stays with us, the more she grows in those and other areas and "fits in" with us.  She is changing.  But I'm changing more.  My heart and attitude are still so gross, but she is teaching me lessons which could not be learned in any other way or with any other human.  I am a far cry from "patient," "loving," "joyful," "gentle," and "generous," but every day that I choose to say "yes" again to this hard calling, God is putting more of those qualities into me, slowly but surely.   

 This is a bumpy road that we're on, but I know that it is leading to somewhere beautiful beyond where I can currently see.  Fostering isn't only about taking in a child; it is about giving hope.  He knows the plans He has for us.