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

Small Things, Great Love

"You look like you've got your hands full!"

I'm never quite sure how to respond to this comment that I often hear when I'm braving the grocery store or the post office with my five-year-old and three-year-old daughters and eight-month-old foster son.  People say this even when everybody is "doing good listener", in the words of my three-year-old.

In these moments, I usually chuckle awkwardly and move on, but inwardly I wonder if I really look that ragged or incapable of managing the children in my home.

small things great love

Truth be told, my hands are full.  I love these small humans, but the weight of them often feels impossible to carry without dropping something or someone.  My heart is big, but my capacity is small.  

We recently received an email from our foster care agency, advertising a vacancy at one of the houses in their foster community.  These homes are specifically built for foster families who want to take in at least five foster children at a time (in addition to any biological or adopted children they may already have).  My heart immediately jumped at this opportunity, but my head quickly followed, and I knew that we couldn't make the move.

Our friends did.  I've lost count of how many children they have living with them at any given time.  It's a lot.  And they do it with such grace.  

Currently, our home is only open to babies, and we only take one at a time.  It's easy to feel defeated when I see these single moms who foster challenging teenagers, or the young families like us who take in large sibling groups.  It feels as though we aren't doing enough.  My hands are full with only one extra child, and I wonder if we are possibly making any sort of difference in the world as we "only, only, only..."

When I was a teacher, I was often reminded of The Starfish Story.  Do you know that one?  A young boy is walking along a beach covered with thousands of starfish.  Every few feet, he bends down to pick up a starfish and throw it back into the ocean.  An older man walks past the boy and stops to ask him what he is doing. 

"I'm picking up these starfish and throwing them back into the ocean so they can live," replies the boy.

"But there are thousands of starfish on this beach; how could you possibly make a difference?" the man asks.

Again, the boy bends down, picks up a starfish, and throws it back into the ocean.  "It made a difference for that one," he tells the man.

For that one.

I can't change the world.  I can't fix this broken system.  But I can continue to do small things with great love for this little life that God has placed in our home.

I can wake up and change eight diapers a day, clean spit-up, feed him another bottle, and throw in a fourth load of laundry (from today).  These are small things.  But I’m crazy enough to believe that those little acts, done with love, may forever change the trajectory of his life. 

Sometimes the small things feel big.  It feels big that random people are constantly in and out of our house, scrutinizing our parenting and assessing for safety.  It feels big that he's on WIC, so I pick through the baby food shelves like a fool who doesn't know what's what (because I don't) and then wait for the cashier to hand me my 17 receipts (literally 17; one for each item purchased) while everyone in line behind me watches and waits.  It feels big that we've stripped away everything but the essentials from our budget and our schedules so that we can provide well for Little Man.  It feels big to ask for help, to say "no" over and over and over again, and to be misunderstood. 

These are things I want to do for him, things that I've been called to do.  Sometimes these big-feeling-small-things are easy to perform with delight.  Often, they feel like dying.   

Dying so that he can have life. 

This is the gospel.  I don't live it out perfectly or even well, but I hope that one day, K and his parents see and know that I did these small things because of the Greatest Love that was shown to me in the face of Jesus.  With that perspective held in the forefront of my mind, the small things do feel less big ... but never insignificant.  

15 Things I Learned From Our First Foster Placement

foster care

I am convinced that no amount of training could ever prepare anyone for the realities of foster care.  We sat and listened to knowledgeable, wise, experienced people talk about fostering for hours ... and then we jumped in ... and I realized that listening and knowing are not at all the same.

We fostered our first little girl for 4.5 months, and I'm a completely different person after doing so.  There are a million things that I wish people would have told us at the beginning of our journey, and a million things that they probably did tell us before either of us truly had ears to hear them.  We are planning to regroup and do respite care before jumping back into fostering full time in the fall, but we will make some changes next time based on the lessons below that we learned from K.

* * *

1. Ask for and accept help, including respite.  Foster care is a constant exercise in humility, and it is the first time that I have begun to understand the expression, "It takes a village to raise a child".  You cannot do this alone.  There are people who genuinely want to help, but they may not know how.  Ask for specifics, and graciously accept them when they come.  Some things that were especially helpful to us included meal trains, a housekeeper, practicalities for K including pull-ups and clothes, babysitting, random cups of coffee or bottles of wine, and time away from fostering.  We occasionally needed a date night to reconnect as a couple or a weekend to reconnect with our girls.  Everyone needs this.  Taking a break and leaning on others are not signs of weakness.

2. Don't expect people to understand foster care generally or your placement specifically.  This was a big one for me.  Sometimes when I would discuss the hard realities of living with K, people would only see the cute little pigtailed blonde and give me a blank stare ... or worse, a hurtful, unhelpful comment.  I viewed fostering with different eyes before we actually fostered, so I try to remember this and show grace to others.  I cannot expect people to comprehend a situation that they have never experienced.

3. Ask questions before accepting placement.  Our home had been approved for six days before we accepted placement for the first phone call from DHS.  Granted, K had never been in custody before, so many of the questions that we might have thought to ask possibly could not have been answered.  However, we will need to know more than the child's age and the reason that she was placed in custody before we move forward next time.  This is not being picky; this is being wise when there are other children in your home to consider.

4. Find other foster families.  Friends, family members, church members, and coworkers can give a certain degree of support on the journey, but no one can provide the same level of understanding or encouragement that other foster families can.  Get in a positive support group (not all are positive; some tend to turn into complaining sessions) and find another foster parent with whom you can safely vent and also rejoice weekly, daily, or as often as needed.

5. Just because a child needs a home does not mean that you have to give him one.  Guilt is not a good reason to do anything!  You must consider you own family and your mental health before you can think about providing a home for a child.  It really is okay (and best for the child, honestly) to say that you will not accept children of certain ages or with certain types of needs.  Your call to fostering does not imply that every child will be a good fit.

6. Let go of any and all illusions of control.  DHS and the court system do not care about you or your opinion as a foster parent, even though you are the one who spends more time with your foster child than anyone else.  You cannot control any of the decisions that are made about your foster child while she is in your care, and you do not get to determine how long she stays with you or where she goes next.  This can be maddening, but it is the way of the system.  The sooner you are able to accept that and move on, the better.

7. Have zero expectations.  Do not have expectations about your case worker, about which things will be hard, about how your foster child will wake up in the morning, about how helpful (or not) people will be, about how much information you will be given, or about anything else related to foster care.  More likely than not, your expectations will be incorrect.  And there is no quicker path to discouragement than unmet expectations.

8. It is okay to have limitations, and it is wise to know what they are.  Throughout our first placement, I had moments of feeling inferior to other foster parents who routinely accepted sibling groups, medically fragile children, and children with more significant special needs than the ones K had.  Everyone is wired differently, and everyone's family looks differently, so the person who is most capable of determining limits for your family is you.  Yes, that other foster family may have six children and be fostering a sibling group with medical needs.  They are not you.  You alone can determine how many and what type of children to accept.  If you can be a safe, loving space for one "typical" child, that is one child whose life will be forever changed because you said "yes".  

9. Use an agency.  I can't say this enough times.  Using an agency is no cost to you, and it is the agency's job to make sure that foster parents have what they need to be successful.  Not only did our agency provide us with tangible items that we needed for K, but they gave us a voice.  The state's job is to find safe homes for children, so DHS workers can have a way of putting pressure on foster parents to take in more children or to keep a child beyond the family's breaking point.  Our agency always made sure that we were informed and cared for so that we could continue providing for K, without falling apart ourselves.

10. Foster care is consuming.  Emotionally, financially, in regard to your schedule, physically, and in every other way possible ... foster care will impact your entire life.  There is no real way to prepare for this; you just have to know that it is true.

11. You will grow.  The child in your care will grow, too, but not nearly as much as you will.  I see so many things with new eyes, and my capacity to love and serve has grown infinitely in just a few months.  K taught me so much that I could not have learned any other way.

12. The daily sacrifices matter and are worth it, even if you don't ever see the results of them until the child leaves.  Actually, you might not ever see the results.  And that is not the point, because foster care is not about you.  

13. Self-care is actually important.  It is not selfish to get a pedicure or join a gym that has childcare.  You cannot take care of others unless you are in a healthy mental state.  Taking care of your core family is important, too.  It is not cruel to take your own children on a short trip or have a "family night in" while leaving your foster child in the hands of a capable caregiver.  As much as I always wanted K to feel included in our family, at the end of the day, she was not technically part of our family.  Our girls were often put on the back burner during the last few months so that we could take K to therapy and family visitation, and really just so that we could meet the basic and special needs of this child in our care.  Our girls are two and four, so we were asking a lot of them.  They, too, need to be in healthy mental states and feel connected to and loved by us.  We were given the task of parenting them long before we were called to parent K.

14. Goodbye will be hard.  When you love someone, it is inevitably difficult to let them go.  We knew that K's moving on was in the best interest of everyone, but watching her walk out of our front door was one of the most heartwrenching moments I've ever experienced.  I cried my eyes out that day, and I'm still crying about certain memories of her after a few days of her absence.  Even though the days felt impossibly trying and even though we are hopeful about her new home, we are grieving a great loss.  Maybe a few weeks down the road, I won't get teary when I find her tiny shirt in the laundry or when her name is mentioned, but for now, I'm going to let myself grieve.  {As a side note, I will always, always, always make sure that a child has his or her own suitcase before leaving my home.  Trash bags are not suitcases.} 

15. God always shows up.  I cannot tell you the amount of times when I thought that I could not possibly make it through another moment, yet He carried me through.  I also never doubted that K was supposed to be with us because of the way certain things about her placement were timed and orchestrated.  I do not have endless patience or wisdom, but He does, and He continued to make that evident through foster care.

* * *

My husband and I have looked at each other multiple times in the last few days since K's departure and asked ourselves, "Are we crazy for wanting to do this again?"  Maybe we are.  Probably we are.  But as long as we both continue to feel called to this hard and beautiful adventure, we'll take what we have learned this time and continue to welcome children into our home.  I hope that we can teach them half as much as our first placement has taught us.

A Tribute to Single Parents

I saw you walking your kids into my Pre-K classroom every morning.  They appeared to be well-rested, but you looked exhausted already ... and it was only 8 a.m.

I see you in the grocery store, pushing your cart through crowded aisles and trying to get your son to just sit down without smashing the bananas.

I see you at your job.  You're often the first one there and the last one to leave.  It's killing you that your baby has been with someone else all day, but the bills don't pay themselves.

I see you at soccer games, at parent-teacher conferences, at church, and at other activities that are important to your little ones.

I don't often see you at concerts, at the nail salon, at sporting events, or at adult parties.  I don't see you at activities "for you".

I love my daughters so much that I think my heart will burst at times, so I understand why you do what you do.  It's because you have to.  Because you wouldn't have it another way.  Because their happiness matters more than your own.

I flew solo with my youngest on potty training this past weekend.  It was mostly a disaster, and I couldn't wait for my husband to come home at the end of The Longest Day in the History of Caroline.  When he walked in the door, I could finally have a moment to breathe and I came to the realization, for perhaps the ten thousandth time, that I couldn't do all of this without him.  But, single parent, "without him" or "without her" is your life - every day, every moment.  

I need to apologize.  I used to look at your kids and blame you when they misbehaved in my class.  "Their mom doesn't spend enough time with them," I thought.  Not long ago, I would see your daughter with boogers in her nose and wonder why you didn't grab a tissue on your way out the door.  I noticed your children falling apart in Wal-Mart but failed to see the helpless look on your face because sometimes, kids will just be kids.  {Also, doesn't everyone fall apart in Walmart?)  I had no sympathy for you because I didn't take time to listen to your story or care about your circumstances.  Then I had a baby of my own.  I get it now, and I'm sorry.

I'm alone with my girls for about six hours each day before their daddy comes home.  There are days when those hours are pure joy, and there are days when they scream and live in their little worlds of seemingly perpetual disobedience.  On the tough days, I can't wait for my husband to walk in the door.  He lets me go for a run, grab a cup of coffee with a friend, or get a pedicure.  I know that those aren't usually options for single parents, bless you.  I'm run ragged half the time, and I'm not in this alone.

Your infant is never going to thank you for changing his diaper.  Your daughter probably forgot to give you a hug after you took her to dance practice.  Your son didn't show his appreciation that you took off work early to be at his football game.  Your child's teacher didn't realize how much you had to sacrifice to be at that meeting.  Your boss didn't care that you stayed late ... again.

So to the military wife, the single mom working two jobs, the husband whose wife travels for business more than she's home, and the widower who wakes up at 4:30 to get it all done, I hope someone looked you in the eyes today to say, "Thank you."  And I hope you listened.