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.

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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.

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.

When love does not come easily

If I had a dollar for every time someone said the following words to me, we could probably pay off our house:

foster care love

"I could never do foster care because I'd get too attached."

I used to say that, too.

And then we did do foster care.  And I could think of a billion reasons not to do it anymore, but getting too attached was not one of them.

Can I be honest for a second?  It is really hard to love a kid who is not your own.  

There was something different about adopting our oldest, P, from birth.  I fell in love with that girl the moment I saw the top of her head in the delivery room and have loved her more every day since then.  When our foster daughter, K, walked into our home on January 6th, I immediately felt compassion toward her, but I did not feel love.  She has been with us for 107 days now, and on exactly 107 mornings, I have had to make a conscious decision to show love to her, even when I don't feel it.

People are quick to dish out advice, reminding me to love K the same way that I love my own children.  But here's the thing: She is not one of my own children.  I can treat her equally, sure, but I cannot force myself to feel a certain way.  When my own girls have meltdowns, refuse to obey, or scream in my face, I am most definitely annoyed and frustrated.  Sometimes, when K has done similar things, my blood has been absolutely boiling.  On the surface, my response is always the same, but inwardly, I have felt frustration with K to a far greater degree than I do with either C or P.  The inherent love that breeds patience isn't there with her.

For many weeks, I have been ashamed to admit this.  What is wrong with me that I am not attached and connected to her?  Am I cold-hearted?  This seems to come so easily for other people.  The problem lies in the last statement.  I cannot compare myself to the perception I have of other people who may or may not have ever been in a situation even remotely similar.

Foster care is one giant question mark.  Whether or not K will be with us in a week, a month, or a year is undecided, and we are just along for the ride.  Lately, though, it seems as if K may be moving on soon, and I've been a wreck.  The thought of her not living with us anymore has made me come to an important realization: I do love K!

Love is not a feeling.  It is absolutely, one hundred percent, a choice and a commitment that must be made over and over and over again. 

I don't get the warm fuzzies with my foster daughter like I do with my adopted and biological daughters.  But I do want the very best for her, and I'd give up almost anything to ensure that she has a happy, safe, good life with people who want those same things for her.

Loving my foster daughter has been anything but natural.  Love has not come easily, but perhaps the challenge of loving K has made my love for her more beautiful.  This love that has slowly developed over the last 107 days is deep and abiding, unchanged by her frustrating actions and by my feelings of irritation.  

We will likely only be a stop along K's path in life.  My hope is that K has experienced love in a very real way while she has been in our home, but even if she hasn't or doesn't remember ... I have. 

My own kids make me happy, and of course I love them.  (That's easy.)  But loving a child in foster care has made me understand Christ in a way that loving my own never could.  He gave his very life for infinitely frustrating people like me.  My own calling to love K pales in comparison.  So tomorrow, for the 108th time, I'll choose to wake up and commit to loving my foster daughter once again, even when love doesn't come easily.

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.

foster hope

"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.