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.

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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.

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.

A Few Thousand Diapers Later: A reflection on my daughter's adoption

When my oldest daughter was ten months old, I bought diapers for her for the very first time.    

Ten months!  Do you know how amazing that is?  I'm not even sure that I do.  We never paid a dime.  Her diapers were gifts.

More so when she was an infant but even now, too, Piper's teachers comment on her cute outfits and extravagant hair bows.  

"Where do you get all of her clothes?" they ask.  Well, let's be honest.  They come from her grandparents.  They come in big brown boxes on the porch from her family in Texas.  They come in little pink bags, tied with fancy ribbons and a note that says, "Just because," from coworkers and friends.  

I rarely buy her clothes, and her closet is still overflowing.

I was humbled as we began the adoption process, when money would literally just show up on our doorstep or in our mailbox.  There were days when I would find myself in tears, unsure of how to respond to such generosity but very sure that we didn't deserve it.  Almost a year after bringing Piper home, I was once again overcome by the goodness of our loved ones.  I know that diapers are seemingly insignificant, but I also know that most parents don't wait ten months to buy them.  We were, and still are, so blessed.

The night that Piper was born will always stand out to me above all others for many reasons, but one thing is still particularly striking.  My parents had already waited for hours to see her, and when they finally were able to come upstairs at the hospital, my mom burst into tears.  In fact, I don't think she really stopped crying all night.  At one point, I said something like, "Mom, this is a happy day!  You don't have to cry!"  She responded,

"I know.  I have prayed for so long that I would love her just as if she were your biological child, and I really, really do."

She was always meant to be part of our family.

I knew it during the adoption process, I knew it the moment she was born, I knew it when I was buying diapers for the first time in ten months, and I know it today as she is opening her weekly mail from her family in Texas.  As her parents, we would love Piper regardless of any circumstance, but the continual outpouring of kindness from those who are dearest to us has proven to me that she belongs.  She's our daughter, but she's also a granddaughter, a great-granddaughter, a niece, a cousin, and a friend.  She is partly loved by others because we are special to them, but she is also loved because she is special to them.  

Whenever we tell people our story of infertility, we often get responses such as, "That must have totally sucked.  I'm so sorry."

Yes, it did "totally suck", in more ways than I can begin to articulate.  But no, I'm not at all sorry.  Had I become a mom at 22 like I wanted to be, I would not be a mom to Piper.  The timing of life events is commonly beyond our grasp, but it is always perfect.  Somewhere in Oklahoma in 2012, a teenager had to become pregnant, and simultaneously, we had to be waiting for a child instead of already holding one in our arms.  The waiting was excruciating, but I do not have an ounce of regret in retrospect.

Biological children are wonderful, cherished, and exciting.  I know this because I have one, and she is everything I had hoped she would be.  But there is something unique about adoption.  Piper is loved from so many angles, and it is precisely because her birth mother loved her so much that she was able to put her into another woman's arms.  I hated the writing of her story as we were going through it, but now, I'm so grateful that the Author penned it the way that he did.  Not everyone gets to experience the beautiful gift of adoption.  We did, and we will never be the same because of it.

A letter to my daughter's birth parents

November is National Adoption Awareness Month, and every year, I think about posting something different on the blog than the following paragraphs.  But every year, I keep coming back to the fact that this is some of the best, most raw writing I've ever done, and this is a story that needs to be told.  So, once again, I'm posting this letter to my daughter's birth parents that I drafted over four years ago. 

Though we have an open adoption, we haven't had contact with Piper's birth father since 2013, and we only connect with her birth mother a couple of times a year (on her terms).  Despite rarely seeing them, the feelings below remain the same.  We will always love Piper's birth parents for choosing life for their daughter and choosing us as her mom and dad.

***

national adoption awareness month

***

Dear Amanda and Conner,

I have no idea if you'll ever read these words, but I have to write them.  I have to hope that, even if you never stumble across this blog or open the card that we sent on your court day, you somehow know the way that we feel about you.

I remember getting the call that you were at the hospital, Amanda.  It was June 28th, the day that we would meet our girl.  I had simultaneously anticipated and dreaded this day since May 16th, when I first heard your voice on the phone.  Although I was grateful to be allowed in the delivery room when Piper was born, I was also unsure of myself.  

Would I say something stupid?  Would I pass out at the sight of a live birth?  Would I be able to convey my excitement about bringing home Baby Girl without rubbing salt in your wounds?

 At least our case worker would be there to help us know how to navigate this situation that most people never face...

Except that when Andrew and I arrived at the hospital, you only wanted the two of us back there with you.

 Panic.  

I was honored that you and Conner trusted and loved us enough to let us experience something so special, but up to this point, we had depended on Bonni to help us know what to say to you and how to act.  Andrew put his arm around my shoulders, and I quickly prayed for the kind of strength and wisdom that could never come from me.  

Please don't act like an idiot, please don't act like an idiot.

When we walked in the room, my fears were gone, and I immediately felt at home.  "Hey guys!" you grinned.  Even in labor, you were beautiful and calm.

In a few minutes, the nurse came in to check you.  She looked at Andrew and me, hinting with her eyes that we should step out.  We took the clue and started to leave the room when you, Conner, stopped her and said, "No, it's okay.  They're family."  

I wonder if you know how much those words meant.

Time seemed to stand still as we spent the next hour or so talking with both of you and trying to wrap our minds around this huge thing that was about to happen.  Though we had met you before, those moments in the delivery room were especially precious to me as we actually got to know the parents of our little girl.  In the moments away from the agency, the paperwork, and the caseworkers, you became my friends and not just the couple who had chosen our profile book.   

When the nurse came back later, it was "go time."  Andrew and I stood awkwardly at your head and stroked your hair as we tried to think of something to offer other than, "You're doing great!"  Conner, you were a natural.  You knew exactly what to say and do to help your girl.  And Amanda, wow.  You made labor and delivery look like a walk in the park.  I honestly expected so much anger and frustration, but all I saw in that situation was love.  

I wish there was a way for you to have stood back and watched the scene like we did.  Your relationship with each other is inspiring, and your affection for a baby who you bore for someone else is, frankly, earth-shattering.  Those words that Conner whispered as you pushed, "Come on, Amanda, this is the last thing we can do for her," melted my heart in more ways than you'll ever realize.

Just 30 minutes after you started pushing, Piper was here.  I cried the happiest tears of my life as I took in her thick hair, her chubby cheeks, and her perfect little body.  Then I watched as the two of you held her, and my heart broke.  

This was the reason why I had been so afraid of our time together in the hospital.  You clearly loved her as much as I did, yet you knew that she wasn't yours to keep.  

You said that we deserved her, and I knew that wasn't true.

The nurses came in and out to check on Piper as the four of us bounced back and forth in our conversation between the trivial and the significant.   Andrew and I left for about an hour to pick up some food and to give you two time alone with Piper.  We got back to the room and ate dinner together, and I found myself wishing (though I knew the impossibility of my idea) that there was a way for the five of us to be the little family who lived happily ever after.

The hospital prepared a room around the corner for Andrew, Piper, and me, and we slowly collected our belongings to spend our first night as a family of three.  Before I went to bed, I walked down the hall to refill my water bottle.  Your door was open, and I stopped.  Conner, you were headed out for some fresh air, so I sat down in a chair next to the bed for some "girl time."  Amanda, as I listened to you share your hopes and dreams, as you talked about your friends, and as you revealed your plans for college in the fall, I felt connected to you in a way that few people will probably ever be able to grasp.  

Though we didn't always talk over the past nine months, we were in each other's hearts as we shared this journey.  We have a unique bond: I wanted so badly to be in your place (to be pregnant), and you wanted to be in mine ("established" enough to raise a baby).  There is no way to explain those feelings to anyone else, but I think you know.

The night passed uneventfully, and I began to think about how the two of you would be going home to a new "normal" in just a few hours.  I started dreading those last moments in the hospital.  Finally, around 2:30 the next day, both of you came down the hall.  This was it.  Andrew and I stepped out of the room to give you the space that you needed with Piper. We held each other tightly and prayed for the words to say as we waited for you to come out.  About five minutes later, the two of you entered the hall with Piper, and all the tears that I had been holding back came flooding out as I looked at your faces.  

 I never guessed that goodbye would be so hard.

Amanda, I've thought that you are unbelievably strong throughout this entire journey, so seeing you dissolved by emotion was almost unbearable.  It would have been wildly inappropriate to take pictures in the moments that followed, but the scene will forever be captured in my mind as you handed Piper to me for the last time and as you, Conner, hugged my husband like there was no tomorrow.  In those moments, every word I had rehearsed was gone.  Each of us knew that there was nothing to be said which could possibly convey the feelings we had.  In shaky voices and through blinding tears, we all said how much we love each other.  Amanda, you asked me to "take good care of her," and I promised that I would.  Then the two of you went around the corner and back to your lives.

I still cannot fathom how a day can be so joyful and so gut-wrenching at the same time.

Andrew and I walked downstairs to the hospital's chapel, where I buried my head in his lap, and we both sobbed.  I had thought that I would be filled with guilt when you two went home without a baby, but really I was overcome with profound sadness.  I was sad for you because of the difficulty of your decision, and I was sad for us because I felt like we had just lost two people who, in a matter of days, had come to mean everything to our family.  

"Be still and know that I am God," the walls of the chapel read, and this is ironically the verse tattooed on the wall of our bedroom at home.  Both of us found it difficult to "be still," because our hearts were so heavy for you.  We prayed over and over for God to give you peace, and I still pray every day that you've found it.

As I got ready to go home the next morning, I burst into tears all over again, and I wondered how many days would pass before I woke up without crying for you.  In the weeks since we have been home with Piper, time has slowly eased the hurt, but I don't think of you any less.  I have never once doubted that you would change your minds about the decision you made, but I have felt an unexplainable stillness in knowing that if you did, I would be okay because as much as I care about Piper, I care about the two of you equally.

Every night before bed, we tell Piper how many people love her, and the two of you are always at the top of the list because you will always be her parents, too.  

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I can't wait until she is old enough to ask questions about the picture of the four of us on the wall in her room, until she wonders how she got her beautiful black hair, and until she makes the connection that her middle name is the same as her birth mother's.  I can't wait for that day because then I get to tell her, once again, the story of two people named Amanda and Conner who loved her so much that they made the greatest sacrifice two people could ever make.

People say that you can't understand true love until you have a baby.  Although I don't fully agree with that statement, I do believe that I've experienced a fuller and deeper kind of love because I met you.  In your words, Conner, this situation was just "meant to be."

Through our whole adoption journey, I have been the most worried about our relationship with our child's birth parents, and that has actually come to be the most beautiful part of it all.    

You named our sweet girl Grace when she was with you for nine months, and grace has absolutely been the theme of our song.  "Thank you" seems so inadequate for expressing the gratitude we daily feel for your selfless gift, Piper.  Somehow I hope you know just how much you mean to us, not just for giving us a daughter who we could never have on our own, but because of the truly strong and special people that you are.  I love you and respect you both, and because of you, my heart is full for the first time in years.

Love,

Mary Rachel

Hiding in Plain Sight

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During my teaching days, I found it difficult not to get annoyed when that boy in my class was literally spinning around on his knees on the carpet while everyone else sat quietly and listened to the lesson.  Or when he was still doing his puzzle, even though I had called him to line up four times.  He didn't know why he was acting that way.  I didn't really know why, either.  But I did know that his parents had split up recently, and that he was coping with that the only way his little four-year-old brain knew how.  He didn't talk about it, but in his own way, he was screaming that he needed to be heard and understood.

As I dealt with that kid's situation, I started thinking about the people around me and how many of them might not be spinning on their knees during story time but still spinning out of control, helpless to stop life's unrelenting circumstances. I wonder how many of them are concealing deep sadness or anger, aching to tell their stories but petrified by the fear that there is no one who will truly "get it."

I've known people to commit suicide before, and typical comments after such instances are, "I just never realized he was that unhappy" or, "She always seemed okay." 

People have ways of "hiding in plain sight."

 It's easy to think, "I would tell someone if I was that miserable," but would you?  Would I? 

The darkest, most ugly parts of ourselves are the ones that we tuck away, cover up, and bury so deeply that no one else can find them. 

I'd like to think that I'm honest a majority of the time, but there are still pieces of me that I'm reluctant to share with anyone, even with those who love me the most. 

When it comes down to it, I'm afraid that no one will hear me, or that those who do might judge or laugh.  My biggest fear is that no one will care.

While the tendency to hide is undoubtedly part of the human condition, I also wonder how many unheard stories would get told if there were more people who practiced the lost art of just listening.  I'm generally more encouraged by a friend's silence than by a multitude of words which amount to little more than platitudes, quick fixes, or cliches.

I guess I'm writing this because I'm daily realizing that everyone is fighting a hard battle. 

I often have a short fuse with people.  To my own sweet girls, I sometimes want to yell, "Seriously, stop acting like that.  You're driving me crazy."  When talking with the friend who is making destructive decisions because her boyfriend just broke up with her, I have to resist the urge to shake her and say, "You're being a complete fool.  Just stop."

A person's situation is never as easy as "just stop."  There is always so much more under the surface than people are willing to or feel comfortable with sharing.

So I'm challenging you today, but mostly I'm challenging myself, to have some grace with those around you.  Smile a little more than you think is necessary.  Say less.  Listen more.  Remember the times when someone has shown you kindness.  Mostly, consider everything about a person before jumping to a hasty conclusion.  The outward signs of a perfect life do not always reflect the inward state of being.