Why I Am Grateful for My Daughter's "Label"

We had waited for four months to get this appointment, but really I had been waiting for years.

***

My daughter was an easy baby.  She slept great, ate great, and cried rarely. 

I knew that something was “off” around the time she turned eighteen months old.  My easy baby became an extremely challenging toddler.

“Oh, she has just hit the terrible twos early,” friends would say.  “She’ll grow out of it.” 

“She’ll grow out of it,” I kept telling myself.  But as I listened to others talk about the challenges they faced with their own children, my “mother’s intuition” told me that she might not.  Now she’s almost six, and many of my fears were grounded.

The longer I struggled to parent my child, the more I retreated into myself.  I got tired of hearing well-meaning people offer parenting tips and embarrassed as others openly condemned our parenting style.  We had tried it all and were grasping at straws.

Over the last year as we have had children from the foster care system in and out of our home, I have been somewhat blind to the needs of my own daughter.  I thought that maybe she was doing better, but the reality is that she continued to struggle, and I continued to be unavailable to her.  I recognize all of that now that we are four months removed from fostering and our lives are back to “normal”.  (Well, a new normal.). So in January, once I could see more clearly, I made an appointment with a team who had come highly recommended as a last-ditch effort to figure out what is going on with our sweet girl.

***

As five doctors sat around a table and talked at me, I tried to drink as much information from the fire hydrant of information as I could.  I came away from the evaluation with a stack of papers, a plan, and, for the first time in years …

hope.

I hated hearing them say all of those things about her and I hated reading those bold words at the top of the first page they gave me: her labels.  I hate that this issue isn’t something that will resolve itself or go away with time.  I hate the diagnosis, but I’m also extremely grateful to have it.  As with cancer, the disease is truly terrible, but ignoring it or being in denial doesn’t somehow make it less terrible.  These things can’t be treated unless their presence is known.

It felt strange to be on the receiving end of these life-altering conclusions about my daughter.  Having taught special education for years, I was often part of the team of professionals who would sit down with parents for the first time and explain the results of evaluations to them.  I’ve seen all sorts of reactions to this information, ranging anywhere from quiet tears, to “deer-in-the-headlights” looks, to refusal to sign the paperwork, to leaving the room.  I always prayed that I would have an appropriate reaction if I was ever in a similar situation but never dreamed that I actually would be.

***

I cried all kinds of tears in the days following the appointment. 

Angry tears because watching her struggle behind the glass that day was just one of the many times I’ve watched her struggle in ways that many other children don’t. 

Sad tears that she will deal with these things, to some extent, for the rest of her life. 

labels

But also, tears of relief.  I’m not crazy!  The doctors all validated what I’ve seen for years, but unlike me, they know where to go.  Those words at the top of the page, they’re just words.  And yes, words are powerful, but these particular ones aren’t powerful enough to defeat us or her.  Now I just know how to fight.

You know what other words are powerful, more powerful than her labels?  You’re a good mom, and I’m glad she has you.  Those came from my husband.  I’ve felt many things in regard to the challenges of parenting a child with these needs, but “good mom” hasn’t been one of them. 

More tears.  This time, tears of gratitude.  All of those times I have beat myself up for wondering where we went wrong and not knowing how to help her … her diagnosis is not my fault!

Does this all change how I love her?  It absolutely does.  I don’t love her more or less, but I can love her better.  I can start giving her what she needs.  I wouldn’t change a thing about her.  She’s perfect and exactly who God intended her to be.  But now I can have more compassion and grace for her (and myself!), and I can find her help.

This “invisible disability” doesn’t define my daughter.  It is a part of her, but it isn’t her.  When she introduces herself to other people, this thing won’t be the first or second, or probably tenth thing she tells them about herself.  She’s still the little girl who asked to visit our sick elderly neighbor this weekend.  She still loves gymnastics and reading and babies and her dog and being outside with her sister.  She’s still one of the best readers in her class, and she is still crazy good at art.  I couldn’t be more proud.

I’m grateful for her label because those little words open doors for her, and she’s too stubborn to let the words win.

We closed our home.

Four years ago this week, I was scheduled to run the Tulsa Route 66 Marathon.  It would have been my sixth full marathon, and I had trained for it for months.  If all went according to plan, I could beat my previous personal record and finish in 3 hours, 50 minutes.

On Monday of Race Week, I found myself at urgent care with a nasty case of strep throat.  Undeterred from my race goals, I began taking antibiotics immediately and felt much better in a few days.  I headed to Tulsa that weekend, exhausted from a long week of sickness, but ready to accomplish what I set out to do several months before. 

Disaster hit at Mile 3 of the race.  Mile 3!  This never happened with so many miles to go.  I felt as though I was floating and on the verge of vomiting and about to fall asleep all at the same time.  I attributed these effects to the antibiotics I had been taking and willed my legs to run for several more miles. 

As the race dragged on, I was becoming more and more miserable, and it became increasingly clear that finishing the full marathon was out of the question.  Again, this never happened.  I never quit races.  My previous mode of operation had always been to keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter what. For whatever reason that day, though, I listened to my body (or maybe it was the Holy Spirit).  When the road split, I tearfully made the choice to continue with the half marathoners, letting go of all of the goals I had prior to the start of the race.  I hated myself for it at the time.  Quitting was much harder than finishing would have been.

***

We are closing our home to foster care for awhile.  After Little Man left, our worker asked us when we’d be ready to accept another placement.  We told her that we wouldn’t.

foster son

I hate that I just typed that. 

I had anticipated having many children in and out of our home over many years.  Maybe we still will.  Maybe in five years, we’ll be in a different season and ready to try this again.  But I didn’t anticipate closing so soon.  We still had a few more months to give before I start school full-time, and it feels like we quit.  Quitting was much harder than finishing would have been.

***

Two days after I failed to complete the full Tulsa Marathon, I took a pregnancy test.  For the first time in years, it was positive.  In that moment, I knew exactly why God and my body had been telling me to stop racing, and I was overwhelmingly grateful that I had listened to both of them.

***

I’m not there yet with our decision to take a break from foster care. 

Most days, I feel that we are making a huge mistake.  I have a defeating sense that we didn’t do enough … that we gave up … that everyone everywhere is as disappointed with me as I am. 

When I look at what we are doing (or not doing) from a logical stance, it makes complete sense.  My own capacity and limitations have become very evident to me over the past year, and while I often wish that they were different than what they are, I know that full-time school and full-time fostering are not an option for me.  I wouldn’t be able to do either well, and my family would suffer.  Accepting another placement without knowing how long the child will stay seems careless, when I know that the time we can dedicate to fostering is limited and the system is painfully slow.

This is the correct, logical decision.  However, emotions often speak louder to me than logic, and there have been some pretty noisy emotions lately telling me that I’m a failure.

***

A friend revealed to me last week that we have been fostering for almost a year.  Somehow, I literally had not thought about that until she mentioned it.  The last year has slipped through my fingers, and there have been moments when it feels as though my own life has been passing me by. 

There are good reasons for our family to take a break - good reasons that aren’t purely logical. 

Foster care requires far more than a willing heart.  I’ve poured out my life for the two kids who we’ve had in our home this year, which has simultaneously been a joy and a sacrifice.  Somewhere along the way, I lost a piece of myself.  In caring for these children, I didn’t care for myself (spiritually, emotionally, or physically).  As I’ve been accustomed to doing during marathon training, I ignored all signs that I was not doing well at all and kept putting one foot in front of the other.  My foster kids had everything they needed, but my own kids lost their patient mom, and my husband lost his loving wife.

Everyone talks about how children are resilient, and they are.  However, becoming a foster family is asking an extraordinary amount of two-and-four-year-old girls.  They loved both of our foster children better than I did at times and never showed them anything but grace and kindness, which has been extremely humbling for me to watch.  But they struggled in ways that they may never be able to voice, as their little worlds became increasingly unpredictable and their parents became increasingly unavailable. 

I know what a great dad my husband is to our girls, and watching him being a dad to two children whose own fathers were mostly MIA brought me to tears multiple times throughout the year.  He couldn’t have loved them any better than he did.  Foster care took a toll on him, too, though, and having two completely spent people in a relationship strains it, no matter how strong it was to start.  I almost lost my marriage once; I’m not about to lose it again. 

Death has, unfortunately, been a consistent theme in the lives of several close to me throughout 2018, and attending three funerals in the last four months has caused me to reflect on my own mortality and the shortness of life.  I’ve been thinking about the legacy I want to leave and wondering what people will stand and say at my funeral.  I want my children and spouse, more than anyone else, to say that I cared for them well. 

I don’t regret a day of our journey through foster care.  God called us to this and gave us the grace to be obedient.  Now he’s calling us to something else, and I must choose to be obedient again.  I know I won’t regret a day of being fully present for my home team over the next few months.

***

foster daughter

It is easy to become discouraged when I see other foster families living out their calling so well.  They make it look easy, and maybe it is for them.  Maybe, too, I don’t see everything.  Definitely, we are not them, and that is okayComparison is the thief of joy.  It is also the thing that sometimes keeps me from following the Lord’s will for my life because I am overly concerned with how that doesn’t always look like His will for everyone else’s.  I may never have a revelation as to why I listened to His voice this time which is on the scale of my pregnancy in 2014.  But hopefully, when I stand at the gates of heaven, I will hear His voice louder than ever, proclaiming, “Well done, my good and faithful servant!  You did all that I asked you to do.”  When that day comes, I know I won’t wish that I had run the race He laid out for someone else.

***

When our first foster child entered our home, she had so much shame that she would hardly look us in the eyes.  (I’m thankful to report that this was no longer the case by the time she left.)  She seemed consistently afraid that we would be disappointed in or angry with her.  I remember trying to talk to her one day early on in her stay, and she would not look up from her shoes.  I lifted her head, cupped her face in my hands, looked straight into her big blue eyes, and said, “K, I love you no matter what!”  In that moment, tears streamed down my own face as I realized that this is exactly what my Father does for me.  He lifts my head out of my shame, and although I can’t see His face today, I know that there is no disappointment or anger in His eyes. He loves me because I am His daughter, and not because I did or didn’t do foster care for a certain amount of time.  He says I’ve done enough, and that is enough for me.  Well, at least I want it to be.

When Love Comes Easily

Several months ago, I published a post about how love for our foster daughter did not come easily for me. Of course I loved her, but my love primarily looked like actions and not “warm fuzzies”. Compassion for her was simple; affection was significantly less natural.

Then Little Man came. And within the first few minutes that the DHS worker brought him into our home, I suddenly understood what people meant when they talked about getting attached to their foster children.

I loved that little boy.

He left us this week, and while I’m trusting that this move is for his good, I can’t walk past his room without crying. I printed off pictures of him to put in our home just before he left, and I can’t bring myself to put them up. Every one is a reminder that he is gone.

Though K’s stay with us was relatively brief in the grand scheme of life, my connection with him was immediate and deep. As a stay-at-home-mom, I’ve been the one primarily responsible for changing his diapers, feeding him, getting him to sleep, and making him happy. When your life revolves around literally keeping a tiny human alive, there is a sense of purpose that is lost and an emptiness that is felt when caring for him no longer consumes so much of your time and energy.

foster care

People always tell me that they could never do foster care because they would get too attached. {Deep breath; I’m about to rip off a Band-aid here.} That is generally not a legitimate reason (though there are plenty of legitimate reasons not to, which I’ll likely dive into another day. I certainly don’t think everyone is called to foster parenting).

However, if it is really, truly the case that you’re worried about attachment and you’re not hiding other reasons behind an answer that sounds acceptable, then you are absolutely the type of person who should do foster care!

During K’s time with us, I knew that he would eventually leave. I also knew that that could occur next week or tomorrow or in a year, and I’d likely be the last person to know about his pending departure. I wanted to guard my heart to protect it from being ripped out of my chest when that day came, but every time I kissed his sweet fuzzy head, withholding love from him seemed more and more impossible. I imperfectly threw everything I had into loving Baby K, partly because he needed that, and partly because I couldn’t imagine another way.

He was never ours, but we are grieving a huge loss. It does feel like my heart got ripped out of my chest. But as sad as I am that he left, I am more thankful that he came. Our lives have been drastically impacted by a little guy with big brown eyes and two teeth.

I didn’t want to release him into the hands of someone else. Ultimately, though, he is forever held in the hands of his Maker, who loves him more deeply and perfectly than I ever could. Because of that, I know he’s going to be okay.

And I am, too.

The Words That Change Everything

I realized I wrote this post several weeks ago and never published it. I hesitated to publish it now, as our little guy left us this week and we are grieving his loss. But the words are still true. “Thank you” still changes everything.

***

No one is ever short on things to say when it comes to foster care.  Because foster care (and life in general) is hard, well-meaning people love to offer phrases like the ones below, which are supposed to make you feel better but really kind of don’t.

”I could never do that.”   (Yes, you could.)

”That kid is so lucky to have you!”   (It’s not lucky when a child is removed from his or her parents.)

”You must be a saint!”   (Um, have you seen this chaos that we call our home?)

There have been some helpful things too, though. 

”God sees you.” 

”I’ve been where you are, and it does get easier!” 

“I’m here to help if you need anything.” 

If you’ve said any of those things, bless your soul!  I have clung to your words more often than you know.

Do you want to know the words that have changed everything for me?  They’re so simple.

”Thank you,” 

and,

“We will never forget what you have done for him.” 

These words came from my foster son’s biological parents.

I know, I know.  Foster care isn’t about me.  I should be willing to make sacrifices and care for this human, expecting literally nothing in return.

But in addition to caring for a human, I am a human, which means that affirmation is life-giving.

thank you

Prior to Little Man, we had another K for several months.  Her mom would tell us things like, “I’m glad she’s safe”, but she never said, “Thank you”.  I don’t hold that against her; she didn’t owe us anything.  But every single day from January through May while K was with us, I wondered if what I was doing mattered at all.  We were only a brief stop along K’s path, and due to her young age and special needs, I feared then (and often continue to fear today) that my daily “dying to self” would be forgotten.  Maybe it already has been.  As much as that shouldn’t matter to me, it does.

I thought that Little Man’s parents would hate us, and I would understand if they did.  I would struggle to love, like, or even accept whoever was taking care of my children if they were removed from my home.  Perhaps they have struggled with those feelings, too, but they’ve never let them come across in our interactions.  They’ve shown us nothing but kindness and gratitude, which makes showing kindness and gratitude to their son infinitely easier. 

I’m tired The days begin far too early and end way too late, and I consistently feel overwhelmed and unproductive at the end of them.

Those words, though ... when I wake up with them ringing in my head ... I can pursue this often thankless calling for another day.  I’m reminded how much words matter and I’m challenged to be generous with mine.  Because in foster care and in everything else, “thank you” can change everything.

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.