Their purpose is not my pleasure.

We accidentally acquired a dog about four months ago.   

By “accidentally”, I mean that my husband’s coworker found her, my husband took one look at her, and she was home within the hour.  

pet dog

Lindsey is the best ever dog now, but this wasn’t always the case.  After she ate a whole pan of chicken wings off the counter, chewed up three pairs of shoes and countless children’s toys, peed on the carpet every time we let her in the house, and destroyed her crate when we left her in it (at all, ever), I was convinced that we had made a serious mistake in taking her.  I couldn’t stand the dog, who was quickly becoming a liability and not an asset.

Thanks to a lot of training and time (and anxiety medication!), Lindsey doesn’t do any of the things she did when she first came!  She stays calmly in her crate, chews on her own toys, sleeps on her own bed, eats only her own food, and takes care of her business outside.  Best of all, she runs with me and is loving and intuitive with our girls.  She has quickly won a permanent place in our home and our hearts.

Every once in awhile, Lindsey reminds us that, in spite of our diligent training, she still has a quirky personality.  Sometimes she sleeps with her feet straight up in the air or stretches so intensely that she lets out a loud fart and then is confused about what happened.  She pulls the squeakers and stuffing out of every toy she owns (but thankfully, only with toys she owns).  Occasionally, she darts after a squirrel during an off-leash run ... and occasionally I let her go.  

It is these little idiosyncrasies that make me love our dog the most, and I never want to put her through such rigorous training that she loses the unique things that make her Lindsey.  At the end of the day, she is a part of our family for our pleasure, and we certainly expect her to behave, but we want her to have a happy life.  We don’t want a robot dog, crushed under the weight of our expectations.

This post isn’t actually about my dog.  She’s a handy example right now, but I’m really writing about the purpose of children.

***

My oldest started soccer this season.  Her team lost every game.  Every single one!

When we showed up to her first game, the other team had matching shorts, socks, and hair bows custom embroidered with their names.  (I forgot which color jersey she was supposed to wear that day.) Several of their self-proclaimed “intense” parents had professional cameras with tripods on the sidelines.  Some of them encouraged their (five and six-year-old) girls to “get rough” and cheered loudly for our team when one of our girls ran confidently down the field toward the wrong goal and scored.  I don’t remember how badly we lost.  I stopped keeping track at 15-0.

As a parent, that game was hard to watch.  Not because I was embarrassed.  Not because I cared about the outcome of the game.  It was hard to watch because our girls felt defeated and frustrated, and U6 leagues are supposed to be fun.  That particular game was a competition between their parents and ours, to prove whose kids were a head above the rest.  It wasn’t really about the girls on the field.

***

When your kids look good and when they’re talented and successful, they make you as a parent look good, also.  Quite honestly, my ego would have loved it if P’s soccer team had gone undefeated this season! But unlike my dog, whose main purpose in life is to bring me joy, my pleasure is not the ultimate goal of my kids’ existence.  Joy is a byproduct of having children, but it is not the reason for having them.

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So, then, what is the purpose of having children?  I’m not sure that question has any one answer, but the longer I’ve had my kids, the more I’ve realized that God gave them to me more for the purpose of bringing about my growth and humility than my happiness and success. 

My parents didn’t crush me with their expectations of me, but I’ve always had unreasonably high expectations of myself and have feared placing those upon my kids, as well.  My standard has been perfection, which is unfair to everyone. Part of learning to be human is making mistakes, and I pray that my littles always understand the rules of our home while knowing that they will be accepted, loved, and cherished, regardless of their successes or failures.  I want to train them up to follow the path leading to true life, but I also want to allow them grace, molding their wills without ever crushing their spirits or causing them to lose the quirks that make them unique.

This has been hard for me.  I do cherish and love my people, but unconditional acceptance of them can be challenging.  From time to time, my kids have challenges, and when I see their purpose as my happiness (or comfort or ease or success), I get angry with them for struggling.  If I’m believing that they exist to make me feel or look good, I become annoyed when they need me to stop what I’m doing to help them, or embarrassed when they lack talent in certain areas.  

When I see my children as precious simply because they are mine and when I am able to view their unique issues as opportunities for my growth, it becomes much easier for me to keep my arms wide open for them in every circumstance.  When I admire my family through the correct lenses, I can say confidently to my non-robotic kids, “You can lose every single soccer game and it’s okay!   You can lose them 15-0!  You can struggle with friendships and emotions and grades.  You can be afraid of the dark and wear clothes that don’t match and you can run off every once in awhile to chase the proverbial squirrel ... and every once in awhile, I might let you ... because always, you have a home in my heart and our family, exactly the way you are.

We closed our home.

Four years ago this week, I was scheduled to run the Tulsa Route 66 Marathon.  It would have been my sixth full marathon, and I had trained for it for months.  If all went according to plan, I could beat my previous personal record and finish in 3 hours, 50 minutes.

On Monday of Race Week, I found myself at urgent care with a nasty case of strep throat.  Undeterred from my race goals, I began taking antibiotics immediately and felt much better in a few days.  I headed to Tulsa that weekend, exhausted from a long week of sickness, but ready to accomplish what I set out to do several months before. 

Disaster hit at Mile 3 of the race.  Mile 3!  This never happened with so many miles to go.  I felt as though I was floating and on the verge of vomiting and about to fall asleep all at the same time.  I attributed these effects to the antibiotics I had been taking and willed my legs to run for several more miles. 

As the race dragged on, I was becoming more and more miserable, and it became increasingly clear that finishing the full marathon was out of the question.  Again, this never happened.  I never quit races.  My previous mode of operation had always been to keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter what. For whatever reason that day, though, I listened to my body (or maybe it was the Holy Spirit).  When the road split, I tearfully made the choice to continue with the half marathoners, letting go of all of the goals I had prior to the start of the race.  I hated myself for it at the time.  Quitting was much harder than finishing would have been.

***

We are closing our home to foster care for awhile.  After Little Man left, our worker asked us when we’d be ready to accept another placement.  We told her that we wouldn’t.

foster son

I hate that I just typed that. 

I had anticipated having many children in and out of our home over many years.  Maybe we still will.  Maybe in five years, we’ll be in a different season and ready to try this again.  But I didn’t anticipate closing so soon.  We still had a few more months to give before I start school full-time, and it feels like we quit.  Quitting was much harder than finishing would have been.

***

Two days after I failed to complete the full Tulsa Marathon, I took a pregnancy test.  For the first time in years, it was positive.  In that moment, I knew exactly why God and my body had been telling me to stop racing, and I was overwhelmingly grateful that I had listened to both of them.

***

I’m not there yet with our decision to take a break from foster care. 

Most days, I feel that we are making a huge mistake.  I have a defeating sense that we didn’t do enough … that we gave up … that everyone everywhere is as disappointed with me as I am. 

When I look at what we are doing (or not doing) from a logical stance, it makes complete sense.  My own capacity and limitations have become very evident to me over the past year, and while I often wish that they were different than what they are, I know that full-time school and full-time fostering are not an option for me.  I wouldn’t be able to do either well, and my family would suffer.  Accepting another placement without knowing how long the child will stay seems careless, when I know that the time we can dedicate to fostering is limited and the system is painfully slow.

This is the correct, logical decision.  However, emotions often speak louder to me than logic, and there have been some pretty noisy emotions lately telling me that I’m a failure.

***

A friend revealed to me last week that we have been fostering for almost a year.  Somehow, I literally had not thought about that until she mentioned it.  The last year has slipped through my fingers, and there have been moments when it feels as though my own life has been passing me by. 

There are good reasons for our family to take a break - good reasons that aren’t purely logical. 

Foster care requires far more than a willing heart.  I’ve poured out my life for the two kids who we’ve had in our home this year, which has simultaneously been a joy and a sacrifice.  Somewhere along the way, I lost a piece of myself.  In caring for these children, I didn’t care for myself (spiritually, emotionally, or physically).  As I’ve been accustomed to doing during marathon training, I ignored all signs that I was not doing well at all and kept putting one foot in front of the other.  My foster kids had everything they needed, but my own kids lost their patient mom, and my husband lost his loving wife.

Everyone talks about how children are resilient, and they are.  However, becoming a foster family is asking an extraordinary amount of two-and-four-year-old girls.  They loved both of our foster children better than I did at times and never showed them anything but grace and kindness, which has been extremely humbling for me to watch.  But they struggled in ways that they may never be able to voice, as their little worlds became increasingly unpredictable and their parents became increasingly unavailable. 

I know what a great dad my husband is to our girls, and watching him being a dad to two children whose own fathers were mostly MIA brought me to tears multiple times throughout the year.  He couldn’t have loved them any better than he did.  Foster care took a toll on him, too, though, and having two completely spent people in a relationship strains it, no matter how strong it was to start.  I almost lost my marriage once; I’m not about to lose it again. 

Death has, unfortunately, been a consistent theme in the lives of several close to me throughout 2018, and attending three funerals in the last four months has caused me to reflect on my own mortality and the shortness of life.  I’ve been thinking about the legacy I want to leave and wondering what people will stand and say at my funeral.  I want my children and spouse, more than anyone else, to say that I cared for them well. 

I don’t regret a day of our journey through foster care.  God called us to this and gave us the grace to be obedient.  Now he’s calling us to something else, and I must choose to be obedient again.  I know I won’t regret a day of being fully present for my home team over the next few months.

***

foster daughter

It is easy to become discouraged when I see other foster families living out their calling so well.  They make it look easy, and maybe it is for them.  Maybe, too, I don’t see everything.  Definitely, we are not them, and that is okayComparison is the thief of joy.  It is also the thing that sometimes keeps me from following the Lord’s will for my life because I am overly concerned with how that doesn’t always look like His will for everyone else’s.  I may never have a revelation as to why I listened to His voice this time which is on the scale of my pregnancy in 2014.  But hopefully, when I stand at the gates of heaven, I will hear His voice louder than ever, proclaiming, “Well done, my good and faithful servant!  You did all that I asked you to do.”  When that day comes, I know I won’t wish that I had run the race He laid out for someone else.

***

When our first foster child entered our home, she had so much shame that she would hardly look us in the eyes.  (I’m thankful to report that this was no longer the case by the time she left.)  She seemed consistently afraid that we would be disappointed in or angry with her.  I remember trying to talk to her one day early on in her stay, and she would not look up from her shoes.  I lifted her head, cupped her face in my hands, looked straight into her big blue eyes, and said, “K, I love you no matter what!”  In that moment, tears streamed down my own face as I realized that this is exactly what my Father does for me.  He lifts my head out of my shame, and although I can’t see His face today, I know that there is no disappointment or anger in His eyes. He loves me because I am His daughter, and not because I did or didn’t do foster care for a certain amount of time.  He says I’ve done enough, and that is enough for me.  Well, at least I want it to be.

When Love Comes Easily

Several months ago, I published a post about how love for our foster daughter did not come easily for me. Of course I loved her, but my love primarily looked like actions and not “warm fuzzies”. Compassion for her was simple; affection was significantly less natural.

Then Little Man came. And within the first few minutes that the DHS worker brought him into our home, I suddenly understood what people meant when they talked about getting attached to their foster children.

I loved that little boy.

He left us this week, and while I’m trusting that this move is for his good, I can’t walk past his room without crying. I printed off pictures of him to put in our home just before he left, and I can’t bring myself to put them up. Every one is a reminder that he is gone.

Though K’s stay with us was relatively brief in the grand scheme of life, my connection with him was immediate and deep. As a stay-at-home-mom, I’ve been the one primarily responsible for changing his diapers, feeding him, getting him to sleep, and making him happy. When your life revolves around literally keeping a tiny human alive, there is a sense of purpose that is lost and an emptiness that is felt when caring for him no longer consumes so much of your time and energy.

foster care

People always tell me that they could never do foster care because they would get too attached. {Deep breath; I’m about to rip off a Band-aid here.} That is generally not a legitimate reason (though there are plenty of legitimate reasons not to, which I’ll likely dive into another day. I certainly don’t think everyone is called to foster parenting).

However, if it is really, truly the case that you’re worried about attachment and you’re not hiding other reasons behind an answer that sounds acceptable, then you are absolutely the type of person who should do foster care!

During K’s time with us, I knew that he would eventually leave. I also knew that that could occur next week or tomorrow or in a year, and I’d likely be the last person to know about his pending departure. I wanted to guard my heart to protect it from being ripped out of my chest when that day came, but every time I kissed his sweet fuzzy head, withholding love from him seemed more and more impossible. I imperfectly threw everything I had into loving Baby K, partly because he needed that, and partly because I couldn’t imagine another way.

He was never ours, but we are grieving a huge loss. It does feel like my heart got ripped out of my chest. But as sad as I am that he left, I am more thankful that he came. Our lives have been drastically impacted by a little guy with big brown eyes and two teeth.

I didn’t want to release him into the hands of someone else. Ultimately, though, he is forever held in the hands of his Maker, who loves him more deeply and perfectly than I ever could. Because of that, I know he’s going to be okay.

And I am, too.

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.  

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.