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. 

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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.

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

On the Other Side of Mother's Day

Holidays are hard.  

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Hallmark has made holidays impossible to ignore, but for many people, weekends like the upcoming one are full of family drama, bad memories, and loneliness.

I feel so blessed to be celebrating Mother's Day as a mom again this year, but I vividly remember how I spent several Mother's Days in a row during our infertility journey.  I wished that I could curl up in a hole and disappear until they were over. Even after we had moved through much of the adoption process, I was gripped by fear that our adoption would be disrupted.  The desire to be a mom was more real than ever, yet the actuality of being one was still uncertain.

Social media only deepened my sadness. Every post about pregnancies or celebrating a first Mother's Day was like a knife being stabbed further into my heart. In some ways, I was killing my own joy.  I could have turned off the computer, but there's something weirdly addictive about pain, isn't there?  I guess that a part of me wanted to stay angry at the people who had what I didn't, because anger is easier than grace.  Looking back on all of it now, I wish that I would have been more satisfied and less resentful.  I didn't have control of my circumstances, but I was allowing my circumstances to have entirely too much control over me.

While it is true that bitterness eats away at the soul, it is also true that even people who have legitimately mastered the art of contentment feel lonely and discouraged at times. That's part of being human.  If you're reading this and dreading going to that Mother's Day gathering (or Christmas feast or whatever) because you know that it will reopen wounds, give yourself the grace not to go. That really is a choice that you have. People might not understand your decision, but I promise that they aren't nearly as worried about your presence as you are.

Although I'm immensely thankful to be "on the other side" of Mother's Day now, a part of this day will always be tough.  Having two precious daughters does not erase the dark years when we walked through infertility and our marriage was a mess.  I'm sad when I remember my friends who desperately want to be mommas, but God keeps saying, "Not yet."  My struggle is years removed, but all of the feelings of those years stay fresh.  

birth mom and adoptive mom

I can't stop thinking about Anna, Piper's birth mom.  She has another daughter now, Piper's half-sister, who she is raising alone.  Sometimes I wonder if she ever regrets her choice to make me a mom through adoption.  I hope that Anna feels celebrated and loved today, but the reality for her is that Mother's Days are probably all filled with thoughts of Piper.  Birth mothers are not "lesser mothers" than adoptive moms, but I'm the one who gets to spend my days with Piper.  I'm the one who hears her call me, "Mom", yet I see Anna in my baby's face every day.  Even in her absence, Anna is an ever-present part of my life, and my heart hurts for her.

Looking back on the last several years, I realize that what I've been through has truly been God's kindness to me. (I've only recently been able to say that.) The seemingly endless period of longing to be a mom has given me perspective that I wouldn't have gained any other way, and it has made me a much more contented person today. Though I wouldn't wish my struggles on anyone else, I wouldn't change them.  If Mother's Day is a hard day for you, trust me; I remember.  Hang on, even when it hurts and nothing makes sense; there really is a brighter day coming.

Gymnastics: The Sport That Forever Warped My Mind and Body Image

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"Again.  You will get up on the bar and try it again."

Her hands were bloody and torn in several different places, but she didn't dare ask questions.  She got up and tried it again.  

Time after time, her feet slammed the bar as her body peeled away from it, or she fell flat on the mat, knocking the breath from her lungs.  With each rotation around the wood, her hands became even more shredded, and she was no closer to accomplishing the skill than she had been when the bar rotation began that evening, or when she had first started working on it weeks ago.

As her whole arms began to shake from the pain of her bloodied hands, fear crept into her mind - fear of falling the wrong way and breaking a body part or collapsing from sheer exhaustion, but mostly fear of disappointing her coach.  She fought back tears as a teammate walked behind her and whispered, "Come on, girl, you can do this!"

She could not. 

Another coach, the Brazilian one who actually had a heart for the young gymnasts under Coach R's lead, had been watching the girl struggle and, concerned for her safety, approached Coach R.  In his thick Portuguese accent, he said, "I think that's about enough."

Coach R eyed the Brazilian coach, and when he looked at the young girl, she thought he might burst into flames.  No one ever dared challenge his authority.  He took a deep breath before asking her, "You need a break from bars?"  

The gymnast, trembling, nodded that she did.  

"Alright, you may take a break from bars.  Push-ups won't hurt your hands.  Go do 1,000."

Coach R had been known to administer this punishment before, primarily to the gymnast on the team with the most natural talent who chose not to work hard.  Never to her, though.  She walked to the corner, hands still throbbing, and began.  

One, two, three, four...

9:00 p.m. approached, and the girl's dad arrived at the gym to pick her up.  She was nowhere near 1,000 push-ups, and she wondered if her coach would make her stay until she could no longer move in order to finish.  

He did not.  He always put on his best face for parents.  She showed her dad her battered hands, climbed in the car, and went to bed.

Less than 12 hours later, the girl was back at the gym for her Saturday morning workout with her hands bandaged, dreading bars but determined to impress her coach.  She swung the bar several times and finally completed the skill for the first time after weeks, months maybe, of trying.  She felt sure that her coach had seen her do it, but he never said a word.  

And she was never able to do the move again.

The gymnast quit the sport altogether less than a year after that incident, but the previous years of verbal (and borderline physical) abuse had already caused damage that she would fight to undo for the rest of her life.

That gymnast was me.  

I quit gymnastics at age 14 and had been training 22 hours per week at the time.  

I had completely blocked the above story out of my memory for 15 years or more, and though the particular incident I mentioned was probably one of the more extreme examples of negativity that I endured throughout my 10 years in gymnastics, it is not out of the ordinary range of events that took place at my gym.  

Tiny girls were routinely told that they barely fit in their leotards, hard workers were made to believe that they were lazy, and second place was never good enough.  

piper_gymnastics

While I was a gymnast, I spent my early teenage years in front of the mirror, pinching my "fat" (skin) through tears; and after the bars skill saga of 2001, I came to believe that the only reason I couldn't accomplish something was because I didn't work hard enough.  That single event proved, in my mind, that I needed to just bandage my wounds, dry up my tears, and try again.  

Today, I still overanalyze every angle of my body, hating the imperfections that I see, and running marathons (literally) in an attempt to get rid of them.  I still fight a tendency to work beyond the point of excellency until I become a frantic mess at the expense of everyone around me.  I still aim to please people because my coach's voice resonates in the back of my head, "That is not good enough."

My daughter started gymnastics this past fall.  I will not let this happen to her.  

My parents have asked me what they could have done to prevent gymnastics' residual effects on my life, and I can honestly say that I don't blame them at all.  They couldn't have done anything.  They sat behind glass walls during my workouts and listened to me talk about how much I loved the sport (which I now realize was not actually the love of gymnastics but of winning).  I never thought to tell them about the abusive things my coach said and did to us because it was all I knew.  Everything he did as a coach, to me, was normal.  

Right now, my Piper can't wait to go to gymnastics on Tuesdays.  She has conquered a number of fears and asks to walk on the "balance beams" (curbs) in every parking lot.  She begs us to "watch this move" in the living room almost nightly.  

I guess it's a wonder that I enrolled her at all, but I don't believe that every girl has the same experience with the sport that I did.  I'm naturally bent toward people-pleasing and perfectionism, so gymnastics simply brought that out in me more.  My daughter is as stubborn as they come, and she's a huge ball of energy needing to be burned.  I think she'll be fine, but you better believe that I'm going to be that "helicopter mom" who is glued to every gymnastics practice and constantly praying that God will protect her where I cannot.