Think What You Could Give Them

“One final question,” she added. “Why should we admit you to this program?”

I wrung my hands nervously and then replied, “You should admit me because I really want this.”

“Thank you for your time. We’ll be in touch,” she told me.

I left the room, took a deep breath, and hoped I had said enough. At that point, I had done all I could do. I let go of all of the tension I didn’t realize I had been holding and walked to my car. Then I waited for six weeks.

***

My journey toward pursuing a new career has been a roller coaster of emotions. In my interview, I meant the words I said in answer to the final question. The application process had been rigorous and competitive, and I was tired. When I opened my acceptance letter, I cried tears of relief and gratitude. But a million times since that interview day and even before then, I’ve asked myself, “Do I really want this?”

What I want for my life today is so different from what I desired ten years ago. Ten years ago (and even five), I would have told you that I wanted to always be a working mom. “My kids would drive me nuts at home. I would need a break,” I said to myself and others. Now that I actually have kids, they do drive me nuts! I do need a break, often! But, much to my own surprise, I love being home with them. Like, I really love it. If I could make a career out of raising children, I would totally do it. I can’t. So I work.

During my final year of teaching is when things really began to change for me. I had given birth to our youngest that August and returned from maternity leave in October. I cried every morning on my way to work. Interestingly, I adored my kids’ daycare and my job that year. There was just something about leaving two kids instead of one that undid me. I knew I needed to make a change, and dental hygiene seemed like a positive one.

I have spent the last three years slowly working on pre-requisite classes for the hygiene program and going through the interview and application process. Mostly, though, I’ve gotten to be home with my people (and other people’s people when we’ve fostered). Last year, I had a part-time Title I tutoring gig that challenged me without stressing me out and allowed me to only work the hours that my kids were at school. I hated to walk away from that. Tutoring, like raising children, is a job I love that is not a career.

Walking out the door on the last day of tutoring in May felt like the first of many sacrifices I’ll make for dental school, and I’ve felt myself struggling to have a good attitude about each sacrifice as it arises. It is so much easier for me to see the things I am giving up in the next two years than it is to see the things I will gain. Isn’t life usually that way?

***

Three weeks ago, I sat in a room full of the other aspiring dental hygienists at my school as we drank from a fire hydrant of information at our summer orientation. It is very rare that I walk into a room and feel old, but at 31, I felt old that day. Most of the girls (and one guy) are 20. Few are married. Even fewer have children. All were geeked out about dental hygiene. As the day wore on, I couldn’t help but think that literally every person in the room was more excited about the program than me.

***

I half-heartedly flipped through magazine pages in the doctor’s office last week, waiting to get shots and blood work completed as part of my entrance requirements. I’ve been going through the motions of getting ready for the program to start, but my heart really didn’t want to be at the doctor’s office that day. A new doctor finally came in, and as he looked through my required immunizations paperwork with the OU College of Dentistry letterhead at the top, he asked me the question I’ve come so accustomed to hearing, “So, are you excited for school?”

mom studying

Normally, I mumble something about not really being excited for school but very much excited for the end result. There was no mumbling or beating around the bush this time. I’m completely overwhelmed. “No,” I said, “I’m really not.”

He looked at me and then chuckled kindly. “You know,” he began, “I started med school when I was about your age. I had two young kids at home. There were a lot of late nights. Lots of studying. I missed a lot at home. It was hard.”

Then I asked him the question I’ve been dying to hear someone who has walked this road before answer, “Are you glad you did it?”

He didn’t hesitate. “Absolutely,” he said.

The doctor went on to tell me how much he can give his family now that he is a doctor. They are comfortable and happy, and he’s happy, too. He loves his job, and it’s pretty flexible. The sacrifices paid off.

He probably thought I was crazy, but I cried. That conversation was God’s kindness to me that day.

***

I can’t say that I’ve gotten any more pumped about school since my doctor visit. But keeping the long view in mind has helped me dread it less. I may not be as excited as most of my classmates, but the years of life have given me something they may have less of: perspective. We’ll need each other to make it through these next couple of years which, the doctor convinced me, will fly by.

Possessions aren’t everything. Comfort isn’t everything. I know this, and I’m not going into dental hygiene solely because it pays well. There are a ton of well-paying jobs that I would never consider. But on the days when I’m feeling down about being away from my family so much as I complete my program, I try to focus my mind ten years down the road and think about what I can give them when this is over. Private school (maybe). College. Transportation. Trips. Weddings. Heck, we could even add another kid to our family and give him or her those things, too. People don’t talk about it, but those are not things that many Oklahoma teachers can give their families. (It’s a shame, really.)

My dad did this for my brother and me, and I’m forever grateful. I remember all of his late nights studying and going to class. And then I remember him graduating. And all of the things he gave us because he did. College. Trips. Weddings. He had a couple of terrible jobs, but mostly he enjoyed his work, and he was very good at it. The ten(!) years that it took him to finish school? Worth it.

I want my dad’s story to be mine, too. I might not be thrilled about the difficulty of the next two years, but I can’t wait for my kids to watch me walk across the stage on graduation day, when I can look at them and say, “I did this for me, but mostly I did it for you.”

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Photo by energepic.com from Pexels

Their purpose is not my pleasure.

We accidentally acquired a dog about four months ago.   

By “accidentally”, I mean that my husband’s coworker found her, my husband took one look at her, and she was home within the hour.  

pet dog

Lindsey is the best ever dog now, but this wasn’t always the case.  After she ate a whole pan of chicken wings off the counter, chewed up three pairs of shoes and countless children’s toys, peed on the carpet every time we let her in the house, and destroyed her crate when we left her in it (at all, ever), I was convinced that we had made a serious mistake in taking her.  I couldn’t stand the dog, who was quickly becoming a liability and not an asset.

Thanks to a lot of training and time (and anxiety medication!), Lindsey doesn’t do any of the things she did when she first came!  She stays calmly in her crate, chews on her own toys, sleeps on her own bed, eats only her own food, and takes care of her business outside.  Best of all, she runs with me and is loving and intuitive with our girls.  She has quickly won a permanent place in our home and our hearts.

Every once in awhile, Lindsey reminds us that, in spite of our diligent training, she still has a quirky personality.  Sometimes she sleeps with her feet straight up in the air or stretches so intensely that she lets out a loud fart and then is confused about what happened.  She pulls the squeakers and stuffing out of every toy she owns (but thankfully, only with toys she owns).  Occasionally, she darts after a squirrel during an off-leash run ... and occasionally I let her go.  

It is these little idiosyncrasies that make me love our dog the most, and I never want to put her through such rigorous training that she loses the unique things that make her Lindsey.  At the end of the day, she is a part of our family for our pleasure, and we certainly expect her to behave, but we want her to have a happy life.  We don’t want a robot dog, crushed under the weight of our expectations.

This post isn’t actually about my dog.  She’s a handy example right now, but I’m really writing about the purpose of children.

***

My oldest started soccer this season.  Her team lost every game.  Every single one!

When we showed up to her first game, the other team had matching shorts, socks, and hair bows custom embroidered with their names.  (I forgot which color jersey she was supposed to wear that day.) Several of their self-proclaimed “intense” parents had professional cameras with tripods on the sidelines.  Some of them encouraged their (five and six-year-old) girls to “get rough” and cheered loudly for our team when one of our girls ran confidently down the field toward the wrong goal and scored.  I don’t remember how badly we lost.  I stopped keeping track at 15-0.

As a parent, that game was hard to watch.  Not because I was embarrassed.  Not because I cared about the outcome of the game.  It was hard to watch because our girls felt defeated and frustrated, and U6 leagues are supposed to be fun.  That particular game was a competition between their parents and ours, to prove whose kids were a head above the rest.  It wasn’t really about the girls on the field.

***

When your kids look good and when they’re talented and successful, they make you as a parent look good, also.  Quite honestly, my ego would have loved it if P’s soccer team had gone undefeated this season! But unlike my dog, whose main purpose in life is to bring me joy, my pleasure is not the ultimate goal of my kids’ existence.  Joy is a byproduct of having children, but it is not the reason for having them.

IMG_1981.jpg

So, then, what is the purpose of having children?  I’m not sure that question has any one answer, but the longer I’ve had my kids, the more I’ve realized that God gave them to me more for the purpose of bringing about my growth and humility than my happiness and success. 

My parents didn’t crush me with their expectations of me, but I’ve always had unreasonably high expectations of myself and have feared placing those upon my kids, as well.  My standard has been perfection, which is unfair to everyone. Part of learning to be human is making mistakes, and I pray that my littles always understand the rules of our home while knowing that they will be accepted, loved, and cherished, regardless of their successes or failures.  I want to train them up to follow the path leading to true life, but I also want to allow them grace, molding their wills without ever crushing their spirits or causing them to lose the quirks that make them unique.

This has been hard for me.  I do cherish and love my people, but unconditional acceptance of them can be challenging.  From time to time, my kids have challenges, and when I see their purpose as my happiness (or comfort or ease or success), I get angry with them for struggling.  If I’m believing that they exist to make me feel or look good, I become annoyed when they need me to stop what I’m doing to help them, or embarrassed when they lack talent in certain areas.  

When I see my children as precious simply because they are mine and when I am able to view their unique issues as opportunities for my growth, it becomes much easier for me to keep my arms wide open for them in every circumstance.  When I admire my family through the correct lenses, I can say confidently to my non-robotic kids, “You can lose every single soccer game and it’s okay!   You can lose them 15-0!  You can struggle with friendships and emotions and grades.  You can be afraid of the dark and wear clothes that don’t match and you can run off every once in awhile to chase the proverbial squirrel ... and every once in awhile, I might let you ... because always, you have a home in my heart and our family, exactly the way you are.

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.

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.

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.