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.

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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.

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.

She doesn't look like me.

My daughter is beautiful.

I get to say this because I'm her mom, but I also get to say it because it's true.

Since she was a minute old, Piper's dark hair has been the envy of everyone she meets.  She never had "baby hair"; her locks were always thick and long.  As my hairdresser's youngest client ever, my daughter got her first haircut when she was six months old.

Piper's olive skin tans quickly in the summer, and I already know that her big, brown eyes and full eyelashes will never need any mascara (though I'm sure she'll beg me to wear it).  She has her birth mom's dancer legs.

All of Piper's features stand in stark contrast to my fair skin, light hair, and blue eyes.  

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No one has ever told me that she looks like me.  

Most days, that's fine.  She doesn't look like me.  I know this.

But there are days when I wish that she did, not because I'd love her any more than I already do, but because there is this perception that she would "belong" more to our family if we shared some of the same outward characteristics.

Our biological child, Caroline, is a "mini-me" as far as looks go.  She inherited my wild, blonde hair and my pasty ghost skin.  No one has ever questioned that she is a Fenrick.

More so when she was an infant, but even now that she is four, people ask me of Piper, "Is she yours?"  

I hate this question.  Even though no one has ill intentions when asking, it represents a misconception.  Of course she's mine.  Have you seen how stubborn this kid is, how many peanut butter sandwiches she eats, or how much she loves reading?  Though our outward traits differ, many of the inward ones are exactly alike.  

She calls me, "Mom," but she resembles her birth mother.  That brings a twinge of sadness on both ends.  However, maybe it's God's gift to us, as well.  No one can ever take away how she looks, and no one can ever change how she acts.  She will forever simultaneously be a Fenrick and a Carson*.  

I wouldn't alter Piper's appearance for the world.  My adopted daughter doesn't look like me, but I don't really need her to.  She belongs, despite what the mirror may reflect.

*last name changed

A Hasty Decision and the Next Big Thing

October 2015.  10:20 p.m.

The baby monitor lights up as I'm finally crawling into bed next to my husband.  I try to ignore its red flashes.  I only put her down an hour ago.  How is this happening already?  I try telling myself that she's just having a bad dream, that she'll calm herself down and go back to sleep.  I know she won't.  Her sleep is becoming more fitful each evening.  As her cries continue, I carry my pillow and blanket down the hall and camp out beside her crib for what feels like the hundredth night in a row.

Same October night 2015.  2:50 a.m.

I have slept for a total of about 45 minutes.  I have to get up for work in two hours.  I've tried everything.  My husband has, too, but he's not an insomniac like I am.  Her reflux meds aren't working.  Nothing is working, in fact.  I cannot stay in this house for another minute.  A mess of tears and hormones, I sit behind the steering wheel and drive to nowhere.  Her sister was a great sleeper.  I know that this phase won't last forever, but I am spent.

Next October day 2015.

"I cannot do this again," I sob into my husband's shoulder.

He asks me what.

I word vomit all over him.

"Have another baby.  I can't listen to her cry all night and to her sister cry all day.  I can't function on this amount of sleep.  I can't deal with pregnancy and postpartum again.  I can't keep up at work or at home.  Two kids is plenty.  We cannot have another."

"Okay," he says.

He makes an appointment for a vasectomy later that week.

December 2016.

My baby is now a toddler, and she started sleeping through the night almost a year ago.  Her older sister has adjusted to having a sibling.  I've quit my job, and my hormones and body have returned to "normal", whatever that is.  There are less days when I think that I'm ruining my children and more when I can't get enough of being their mom.  Every once in awhile, this feeling creeps in that we have made a mistake.  

"Have you thought about having your vasectomy reversed?" I timidly ask my husband.

"Have I what?  No, I have never thought about that."

"Would you?  There's this doctor in Fort Gibson ... "

"I cannot do that again," he says.

I ask him what.

He doesn't word vomit.  He says what I know to be true.  He addresses the lurking fear that I haven't wanted to acknowledge.

"It's not about having another surgery.  It's not about the cost or the recovery or the doctor visits.  I cannot go through months and years of infertility again.  I cannot almost lose our marriage another time."

"Okay," I say.

We don't talk about it anymore.

Today.

It's amazing to me how God can take our messes and turn them into something beautiful.  We made an emotional decision when our baby was less than three months old, and I wouldn't recommend that anyone make life-altering decisions that way.  However, our hasty choice also ended up being the right one for us because it has led us to the next big thing ... 

foster care.

Maybe our family isn't complete.  Maybe there is a little boy or little girl already out in the world who needs us, and we need him.  Maybe we will be able to adopt again, or maybe we're only meant to be a soft place to land for a short time.  Definitely, it will be hard.  Definitely, our hearts will get broken, regardless of the outcome.  Definitely, we will be stretched.  Hopefully, we will grow.

Here's to the next big thing, a decision not made in haste but prayed over for years.  

Join us on the journey!

I didn't bond with my baby.

Our youngest turned two last week.

There are a million things about sweet Caroline that I adore.  I love her ringlet curls, long eyelashes, inquisitive nature, free spirit, gravelly voice, and willingness to try any food put in front of her.  I love the weird habit she has of chewing the noses off of her favorite stuffed animals.  I even love that she loves to make messes.  I could go on and on.  If you know Caroline, you could, too.

I fell in love with my daughter the moment that she was born.  Not a moment before.

I didn't bond with my baby while I carried her.

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I couldn't say that out loud for a long time.  

I so wanted to feel some sort of attachment to the little wonder inside of me like my friends did with their babies.  

But I didn't.

When I found out that I was pregnant with Caroline, the feeling was euphoric.  However, my elation settled after a few days and was replaced by an underlying worry that all was not well.  Because so many things had gone awry in the previous 4+ years of infertility, I was sure that disaster would strike this baby.  Subconsciously, I distanced myself from my growing fetus in an effort to shield my heart from disappointment.

As a former gymnast and recovering calorie counter, I struggled to accept my ever-changing pregnant body.  The desire to care for my unborn child constantly grated against my fear of gaining weight.  Often, I gazed into the mirror and cried, resenting the babe who was making me "fat" (a lie straight from the devil himself).  I continued running, if you could call it that, throughout my pregnancy, but I was frustratingly slow and angry that my body could not obey my mind.

Furthermore, I never was able to reconcile how such a tiny clump of cells could cause me to be so ill that I vomited over the kitchen sink multiple times a day for 20 weeks and hated coffee and prime rib.  I knew that I should be grateful for the opportunity to carry a child, and I was, but pregnancy itself was a generally unpleasant experience.

I thought that discovering Caroline's gender and giving her a name would help me to bond with her.  

It didn't.  

I continued to see her as a miracle and a blessing, but I could not see her as the person that I knew her to be in my head ... until I could.

On August 4, 2015, at 1:38 a.m., I fell in love with the daughter who I had carried for 40 weeks.  The idea of her became a reality, and as I took in her tiny toes and full cheeks, I thought I might explode with joy.

I am a visual and auditory learner.  Much to my husband's dismay, I connect very little through physical touch.  This explains how I could feel Caroline's kicks and hiccups in my belly and simultaneously feel nothing.  It also explains my lack of enthusiasm toward breastfeeding.  (Maybe more on that another day.)  But show me my kid's face or let me hear her tiny baby noises, and I'm undone.

I'm not less of a mom because I didn't bond with my unborn baby, and you're not alone if you don't, either.  No need to fake attachment or carry guilt over a feeling that isn't there ... yet.  Love will come.  

It may just need a face.