Foster HOPE

"Why did you decide to do foster care?" the case worker asked me on the Monday after our first weekend with a child in our home.

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"Well, we have room in our home and love in our hearts" is the answer that I gave that day, and it's the answer that I give today if most people ask.  It's easy, and it's fairly honest. 

But about a million times a day, I have to keep coming back to the rest of the story, the other unspoken reasons for why we are foster parents.  Because about a million times a day, I question if we made the right decision.  I've done some hard things in my nearly three decades of life, and this is the hardest.  It's tough in all of the ways that I imagined it would be, plus a hundred more.  If people knew all of the ins and outs of this broken system, no one would willingly sign up for the job.

So why do it?  Why do we give up our time, our budget, our comforts, and our very lives for this little girl, and for any others who may come through our doors in the next months or years?  I can think of a few reasons, though I'm sure that there are more than the ones I'm going to list here.

1.  God tells us to do it.  As Christians, we use the Bible to guide our lives, and God tells His people over and over to care for widows and orphans.  Though I don't believe that everyone is called to be a foster family, I believe that caring for vulnerable children in some way is a calling on the lives of all followers of Jesus.  Sometimes I wish this wasn't our calling.  I want my life to be easy, and foster care is anything but that.  However, I have so clearly experienced God giving His strength and presence to those whom He has called to do His work.  He tells us to rise and say "yes" to His plans each day, so we choose (not always joyfully) to listen and obey.- for our good and His glory.  

2.  It's needed.  I realize that not everyone reading this blog is a Christian.  For you, the Bible does not provide a valid reason to participate in foster care.  Maybe statistics do, though.  There are nearly 10,000 children in Oklahoma alone who are currently placed in DHS custody.  When you woke up this morning in your own home, there were approximately 428,000 kids across the country who did not.  Those numbers are on the rise.  The number of safe, loving homes for those children is not.  Clearly, this is a problem.  

3.  Being pro-life is not simply a matter of opposing abortion.  I could say a lot on this point, but ALL lives matter.  It is unacceptable to fight for the rights of unborn children while doing nothing about the children already living among us in unsafe and abusive situations.  

4.  Foster care is not only about the child, but about the birth family, too.  We have a unique opportunity to invest in K's mom as the temporary caregivers of her daughter.  Our job is not to say, "This is how you raise kids correctly," but to come alongside her in her desire to be a good mother.  I don't think that she has had many people in her life say, "We love you and we are on your team," and we get to do that.  We don't only want a happy life for K; we want true joy for her mother, as well.  Apart from grace, I might find myself in exactly her position, and I would hope that my child's foster family would treat me with humility and compassion.  I would also hope that they would let me participate in my child's life as much as is appropriate.  

5.  We get to provide and be part of many of her "firsts".  Though she is barely three and would be experiencing lots of "firsts" regardless of her placement in foster care, we have the privilege of giving her more.  She first said her name in our car and first used a toothbrush in our bathroom.  She had her first real birthday party last weekend and her first experience with "school" last week.  We don't do these things to try to prove that we are great parents.  We do them because, for the next week or month or year, she is part of our family, and this is what we do with our own children.  While these "firsts" sometimes seem tedious or expensive, I feel blessed that we get to see them and sad that her mother does not.

6.  Foster care can help to break cycles of abuse, incarceration, and addiction.  The more I learn of K's story, the better I understand why she is the way she is.  She faces many of the same issues that her mom does, as do her grandmother, great-grandmother, aunts, and uncles.  Ideally, K's mom can get the help she needs and bring K back into a safe and loving home, thus giving K a better life than the one she had and breaking a generational cycle.  If not, perhaps we can humbly show K that although her birth family will always be her family, she does not have to continue in some of the destructive patterns that she has perceived to be "normal".     

7.  We do it for our kids.  Sometimes people ask us if foster care affects our own children, and it definitely does.  It affects all of us, but probably not in the negative ways that others envision.  Do our girls have to learn to share some of their things and give up some of their comforts?  Yes.  Do they receive a little less of our attention with the addition of this third child?  Yes.  Do they, like us, have to show patience and kindness when K doesn't follow the rules of our home because she has been raised differently for nearly three years?  Absolutely.  These are difficult lessons for our whole family, but they are good lessons that need to be learned.  Though our girls are two and four, they can do hard things.  I truly believe that, while they are being stretched, our kids are also being molded into more gracious children, as we are being stretched and hopefully being molded into more loving parents.  There have been numerous days when I have felt that they are more sacrificial and understanding than we are.

8.  She's changing, but really I am the one who is.  I can easily become frustrated that our foster daughter does not use manners, go to the bathroom, or comprehend the unspoken rules of our family.  The longer she stays with us, the more she grows in those and other areas and "fits in" with us.  She is changing.  But I'm changing more.  My heart and attitude are still so gross, but she is teaching me lessons which could not be learned in any other way or with any other human.  I am a far cry from "patient," "loving," "joyful," "gentle," and "generous," but every day that I choose to say "yes" again to this hard calling, God is putting more of those qualities into me, slowly but surely.   

 This is a bumpy road that we're on, but I know that it is leading to somewhere beautiful beyond where I can currently see.  Fostering isn't only about taking in a child; it is about giving hope.  He knows the plans He has for us.    

It's not my story to tell.

The two-year-old girls currently living in our home are the exact same height with blonde hair and only a 0.2 pound difference in their weight.  I'm a biological mom to one and a foster mom to the other.  They're five months apart, and there has not been a day that I've gone into public with them when I've not been asked by a random stranger (if not 3-4 random strangers), "Are they twins?"  

Usually, I politely smile and say, "No they're not," and the little girls continue stuffing their faces while I continue stuffing the grocery cart.  My brief answer suffices most people's curiosity, but not everyone's.  

"Well how old are they?  Oh, they're both two and they're not twins?  Wow, how did that happen?"  

I shocked myself recently when the lady behind me in Target struck up a similar conversation.  Politely but firmly, I responded, "It really isn't any of your business."

My face immediately grew hot, and my ears turned red.  My heart was pounding as I wondered if I had said the right thing and if I should apologize for being rude.  Rarely ever am I quite so forthcoming.

I continued to think about my answer throughout the rest of the day and came to the conclusion that although I could have been more tactful, yes, I had responded correctly.

K's story is not mine to tell.  

To my close friends and family members, I can tell how her story affects me.  To her caregivers and educators, I can share pieces of her background that are pertinent to her care and education.  To the random lady at Target, you are a random lady at Target.  And however nice and caring you may be, my foster daughter's classification as a foster child is not your business.

She just started saying her name, but only when asked in a particular way.  We're working on expanding her language, but for now, we ask K, "Who are you?"  Not surprisingly, her answer is always "K" instead of "Foster Kid".  "Foster Kid" may be part of her story, but it is not who she is.  Though she has faced many difficulties in her short life, K is resilient, beautiful, and gentle.  She isn't a "poor child"  or a reason to "bless your heart," common connotations that "foster care" carries with it.  K can't speak for herself, but I guarantee that she wants people to see her for exactly the person that she is and not for the situation from which she has come.  Nobody likes to be pitied.  

As her guardian, my job is to protect K.  At this moment, that means letting her share as much or as little of her story as she wants, if and when she feels ready.   

I'm not sure how many more foster children we will have in our home over the next few months and years, but I do know that it will be my job to protect those kids, as well.  They'll all come with their own stories, and whether they are 2 or 12, whether they can speak or not, they'll decide when to tell them. 

For today, I'm just thankful that my story intersects with K's at this point in both of our lives.  Though the endings of them are unknown, the Author of our stories is kind.  For today, that is all anyone needs to know.

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.

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 Telling My Child That She Is Adopted

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For weeks now, we have been attempting to prepare our daughters for another little person's entrance into our household through foster care this fall.  None of this has had any effect on Caroline whatsoever, except that she now gets to share a room with her older sister (which she thinks is awesome).

Our four-year-old, though, is full of questions, particularly about how this child is coming to be a temporary or long-term part of our family. 

"Is it going to be a boy or a girl?"

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"Is it a baby?"

"How long is she going to be here?"

"Do you have a baby in your tummy, Mommy?"  (Ouch.)

"Was I in your tummy, Mommy?"

Piper knows the answer to the last question, but sometimes I think she asks it simply because she wants to hear the answer again.    

People often wonder if Piper understands that she is adopted or if we plan to tell her that she is.  Though the conversation has gone differently at various ages, we've been telling her every day since she was born.  

During her first year of life, we prayed for Piper's birth mom aloud with Piper before bed and named "Ms. Anna" among the lengthy list of "People Who Love Piper".  When Piper began to talk, I asked her why she is special and taught her to answer, "Because God made me.  And I'm adopted!"  Now, she is at the age of obsession with baby dolls and actual babies, so we discuss whose tummy held which infant for nine months.  Always, we've celebrated "Gotcha Day", the day that she officially took our last name and became a part of our forever family.

I have no idea if we're doing any of this "the right way," but we're telling her because we think it's important that she knows.  If we want her to trust us down the road, we are committed to building trust now - in the big things, the little things, and everything between.

"Don't ever tell her that she's adopted," advised the ten-year-old during one of my afternoon tutoring sessions.  "Kids are mean," he said.  "They'll make fun of her."

Kids are mean.  Adults are mean.  Kids don't learn The Golden Rule early in life, and the adults who have learned it forget.  However, kids are mean about anything.  They're mean about adoption, but they're also mean about wearing glasses, having the wrong haircut, and bringing lunch from home instead of buying a school lunch.  I'm hoping that we can teach Piper to choose friends who will love her for exactly the adopted Piper she is.

People have also recommended that we wait until Piper is older to talk to her about adoption because it is too painful and messy to deal with now.  

It is painful and messy.    

The truth is, in a perfect world, there would be no need for adoptions.  There would be no abortions, infertility, miscarriages, abuse, or poverty.  We are not in a perfect world, though; we are in a broken one, so there are messes everywhere.  Like an open wound, painful situations do not disappear when they are ignored.  They might keep from worsening for a time, but eventually, wounds fester and ooze out even more gunk than there would have been if they were properly treated initially.  

So we will tell her.  Now.  As much as her little mind can handle.  We will tell her until she can tell the story, too, and then we will keep telling her after that.  

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We will tell her about how God used years of infertility, tests, and surgeries to mold our hearts and bring her into our family.

We will tell her about a brave 17-year-old who chose life and chose us.  From the Internet.  Because she loved her growing baby more than she loved herself.

We will tell her about the envelopes with money that anonymously appeared on our doorstep or under the windshield wipers to help finance her adoption.

We will tell her about my coworkers bursting into tears in the office when I got the phone call that we had been picked to be her parents.

We will tell her about the many people who walked with us and prayed for her for months before she was born.

We will tell her about the overwhelming love we felt from the moment she appeared in the delivery room.  And the overwhelming hurt we experienced when her biological parents left the hospital the following day, empty-handed.

We will tell her about how every detail of our lives was laid bare before the adoption agency and the judge, and somebody decided that we "passed inspection".

We will tell her about the day that her entire "new" extended family came to court and watched her take our last name.

We will tell her why her middle name is Anna and the significance of the fact that Anna means "Grace," the name she was called on her original birth certificate. 

We will tell her how she got her awesome Mexican hair and her amazing brain that memorizes entire books after reading them only a couple of times.

We will tell her about her biological half-sister, who is Caroline's age and lives with Anna.  

We will tell her about how her adoption has opened doors for us to tell others of the goodness of God, and how her life has made us believe in his goodness again, too.

We will tell her all of these things because they make her who she is.  Because she deserves to know.  And quite frankly, we'll tell her because the story of her adoption is a good, good story to tell.