At the end of the summer, we added four kids to our family. Two of them live outside. They have big brown eyes and brush-clearing prowess, and we call them our “goat babies”.
The other two are also a sister and brother. They have rosy cheeks that press upwards into hazel eyes, into grins that contagiously spread to anyone else in the room. We call them our “littles”.
Two seasons have come and gone since I typed words in this space. I recently learned that Ellie has been reading all the posts I’ve ever written. She says she likes my old ones better because they are not as sad. Then she asked me to write more.
What could I say to her about this year?
Ellie, I didn’t understand the math. That healing the pain of a child could mean assigning a measure of pain to another.
I make agonizing navigational decisions every day; decisions like, for this hour, who do I heal and who do I hurt? Because what I’m learning is that there is not enough of me to go around, and sometimes the absence is felt as actual pain.
I thought I was the one on the other side of the equation. I was prepared to absorb a lot of discomfort. I expected the tantrums, night wakings, diapers, therapies, off-the-charts neediness. Our kids also said, “Yes,” but there is a reason children cannot legally give their own consent for important decisions.
Foster care stories are messy and unpredictable; the road visible only a few steps ahead. Sure, I can hope, and hope is a lembas wafer, sustaining me one day at a time. But I want to know how we’ll all make it out on the other side. Whose hearts will be broken, whose will be strengthened, which relationships will flourish or wither, and if they will look back on this season with bitter regret or amazement.
Jack (my philosopher) pondered aloud recently, “I wonder what I’d be like if we hadn’t done foster care…More carefree, more relaxed, less wise…”. The mores and lesses of the life we chose for him are piling up in ways I don’t even know yet.
Curious, I asked Ellie the next day how she thought she would be different if we were not a foster family (I caught her in a non-sarcastic, adequately nourished, hormonally balanced moment which are as common as Sasquatch sightings for a 7th grader). She said that there are a lot of “hard kids” in her classes this year. Because of foster care, she thinks she has a better understanding of why these kids act the way they do and where they are coming from. “If we had not done foster care, I would just be annoyed at them.” I let out the breath I didn’t know I had been holding.
God created us to need each other, and this truth is never more evident than when the system breaks down. Foster and adoptive families, relatives, therapists, and educators who care for abused and neglected children understand (with ear-piercing clarity sometimes), the visceral effects of an absent caregiver in a child’s life.
When a child’s most important relationship is dysfunctional, inconsistently functional, or abruptly removed, the outcome is less like the heart equivalent of a broken leg, and more like a spreading childhood cancer. The impact is deep and multifaceted, and the treatment must be too.
Is it hyperbolic to suggest that bringing a child with the emotional/behavioral equivalent of cancer into a family with 12 years of relative stability and health is a tsunami? The initial impact sudden and overwhelming; the rescue, recovery, and rebuilding long term with layers of support and inevitable mishaps and wrong turns.
Bringing brokenness into our peaceful home may be a tsunami. God flipped that model on its head and sent Peace and Love in the form of a baby into the whole ugly brokenness of the world.
Emmanuel is one of the names given to the Jesus babe: God with us. It’s like he spelled out to us in actual letters what our broken hearts need: presence, with-ness. Not just a string of words or a name to proclaim, but a relationship. “Stay here and keep watch with me,” Jesus begged his friends, hours before his death. When the resurrected Jesus returned to heaven, he sent his Spirit, a helper for our confused and weary souls.
With-ness is our job description right now as a foster family to our two littles (affectionately called “Bam-Bam” and “Llama Drama” by my friend who now knows them well).
Here I am, right here, always coming back to you for as long as I am yours. My ears listen to your questions (so many), cries (so loud and long), and strong new words (so powerful). My arms pick you up, tuck you in, hold you close. I have two legs, which makes two laps, one for each of you. John pours love into you with every story, snuggle, and banana. Ellie holds your hand in the car, softly crooning, “You’re ok, you’re alright, good job getting calm, I’m so proud of you…” Jack puts your broken train tracks back together, chases you across the house, wields the remote control with true parental authority and wisdom, and wrestles with you on the carpet.
The ministry of with-ness is not only going on in our living room and rocking chairs. Our people have swooped in.
Heidi and Karen avert a child’s beeline trajectory to my tired arms and scoop her up in theirs. Annie cajoles an overstimulated toddler to her lap with smiling eyes and the tantalizing line, “Do you want to hear a story?” Jake and Sarah drive Jack to and from taekwondo practice each week, and the gift of that mile-long commute smack in the middle of bath and bedtime drama taken off our plate is continental. The Kellars and Cowarts take turns entertaining and tiring out our two littles with help from their passels of boys when we need a break. Danielle delivered a to-die-for lasagna, and I can see in her eyes that she just knows, without judgment and with compassion, exactly what is going on in my head. Every single Tuesday, Tanya and I swivel our office chairs toward each other as I unload my week; her questions, concern, and enthusiastic affirmation are like bananas and storybooks to my needy heart. Allison, Jenny, Dayna, Lisa, Gail, Sarah, Katie, Mom, Dad, and others ping my phone with reminders that I’m being thought of and prayed for.
A new friend, one I would not have met if we had not said this most recent “yes”, reminded me of the faithfulness of God when the future looks bleak and the present is hard. How much he loves his children, from the tiniest to the biggest. He hears our prayers, and weaves his plan according to his purposes and with our participation, however headache-inducing and jam-smeared it may look on a particular day.
I don’t know for sure what my kids will one day say about their childhood; how their parents pulled the rug out from under their easy life during their pre-adolescent years. I do trust in a faithful God who is with us while we are with these little ones. My ears and my arms fail – they fail my husband, my son and daughter, and two more every single day. But his never fail. And I join the weary world, rejoicing once again at his coming, his life well spent, and that he lives today.
Every week a Holy Week. A thrill of hope shimmers through this wounded heart.