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.    

Foster Care: A Hard and Beautiful Calling

foster care

At 7:45 p.m. on Saturday, January 6, I was upstairs doing "the bedtime marathon" with my husband and little ones.  Hair was washed, teeth were brushed, and we were on to our favorite part of the evening: stories.  I love reading to my kids, but even as my oldest sat in my lap, I was already thinking about snuggling with my husband on the couch with Netflix and a glass of wine - the makings of the perfect at-home date night.  

Also at 7:45 p.m. on Saturday, January 6, my phone was ringing on the kitchen counter downstairs because a sweet 2-year-old was sitting in our local CPS office.  When I came downstairs and saw an unknown 405 number on my screen, I knew immediately why we had been called.  Shakily, I pressed "play" and listened to the voicemail.  "Would you be willing to accept placement?"  It still seems strange that such a life-changing event begins with a phone call.

We said “yes”, and so began our foster care journey, less than a week after our home was open and less than an hour after that phone call.  

People have asked us how we are doing and what has been difficult about adding K to our family.  "Everything!" I often want to say.  "Everything about this is difficult."

But that's not entirely true.

Pride is easy.  I can, all too readily, fall into the trap that elevates our family above others who aren't doing foster care.  Along a similar strain, I can feel sorry for myself with absolutely no effort at all, believing the lie that others' lives are less messy than mine and becoming angry with those same people, who have done nothing to warrant my irritation.  

Compassion is easy, too.  If I can have compassion, anyone can.  As more of K's story unfolds, my cold heart continues to melt.  I hate what she has had to face in her short life.  This is not the way things should be when you're two.  I want better for her and for her family.  Saying "yes" on January 6 was both simple and obvious.  How could we not?

foster care 2

What's hard has been saying “yes" every day since then.  Continuing to hear and obey this calling for our lives, even when our will is weak and the Voice calling us feels distant, is anything but natural.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die."  Foster care feels a lot like dying sometimes.

It's hard to have two two-year-olds.  Period.  God bless you mommas of twins.

It’s hard to explain this broken system to my four-year-old when I don’t quite understand it myself.

It’s hard to watch her cry for “mommy”, knowing that that person isn’t me.

It’s hard when very few people really understand how big this thing is that we are doing.  I didn't just birth a newborn, but we added a two-year-old to our family, which I would contend is equally consuming at times.  Most people expect us (and anyone else with a new foster child) to continue with life as it was yesterday, when it will never be that way again.  

It's hard to have family in Texas who is willing but unable to help because crossing states lines requires permission every single time.

It's hard for a Type A person like me not to have a plan.  She might still be here in six months, or she could go home next week.  Either way, I'll probably be among the last to know, just as I'm the last to be informed of team meetings and home visits which I'm supposed to attend.  It's selfish, I know, but I hate being at the mercy of everyone else's schedules.  (Selfishness- there's another easy thing.)

It's hard that her language is so limited.  

It's hard that our family is under constant scrutiny by the same people who removed K from her home.  I'm doing the best I can, but I live in constant fear that I've done something wrong.  I'm afraid that someone will think I'm not doing my job if she falls off the bench at dinnertime and bumps her chin or her head, as my own two-year-old does basically once a week.  

It's hard to have very little information regarding the child who is living full-time in my home.

It's hard to pour out my life for this tiny soul, to be the umbrella that she stands under, taking the rain ... and to be unappreciated for doing so.  She doesn't want me.  I can't comfort her like her mom can.  Her mom doesn't want me, or even like me, either.  I tell K every night before bed that I love her, and she never says it back.  Maybe one day she will, but it's possible that she won't.  Perhaps the hardest thing about all of this is choosing to love someone without expecting a single thing in return.

I've put my life on hold for the moment and am not taking any classes for dental hygiene.  I wanted to slow down this semester in order to give our family my full attention, because I know that what we are doing is important and needed.  And yeah, it's hard.  It's dang hard.  Knowing that it would be hard hasn't made it any easier, and sometimes I wonder if all of this is worth it.

But there are moments when it is also beautiful. 

There are these brief reminders that I get the privilege of doing for another what Jesus did for me: He welcomed me into his family, and he pursues me when I don't want him.  He provides for my basic daily needs but also goes beyond that and loves me, simply because He loves me.

Today, she laughed at me while I played with her.  

Yesterday, she and my biological two-year-old played blocks together ... without screaming or crying or stealing.  Yesterday, I didn't even scream or cry or steal ... all day long.

Last week, our friends rallied to bring us clothes, diapers, and food, reassuring us that we are not in this alone.  She has a built-in new family and set of friends who all adore her.

She knows three words in sign language that she didn't know when she came to us.

I get to be the one to give her experiences that she's likely never had before.

Even when they're all fighting, our own daughters LOVE having another little girl around.  Though everyone has had a rough adjustment, K really is a perfect fit for our family.  

Everyone tells the scary stories of foster care, and then everyone understandably gets scared away from doing it.  I want to tell the good stories, about how the most difficult things are also the right ones and how redemption can be found in the most hopeless of situations.    

This is a hard calling.  And it's so beautiful, too.