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

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.