Worth It

The last nine months have seen some changes around here. Mainly in the hair department. Every time John runs a hand across his head, a flurry of tiny escapees falls onto the surface in front of him. Now that the sun has finally made an appearance, it has the annoying tendency to highlight a fresh crop of grays glistening from my tresses (“I think you have more gray hair than I do!” my mother helpfully remarks).

In other words, nine months of sleep deprivation and nearly constant feelings of powerlessness have taken their revenge on our scalps.

But it’s ok. The grays and the grace multiply in synchrony. Dopamine levels around here are surely at an all-time high due to Baby Boy’s sweet nature and chubby cheeks. I arrive at the medical clinic (again), and first the receptionist, then the medical assistant, and finally the primary care provider all burst into smiles when they see their familiar patient. He fills the arms of men whose strong, healthy days on this earth are past but whose hearts still respond to a baby, each giving the other exactly what he needs, and grace abounds.

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We watch him grow, change, learn new things, his brain making the connections that his world is safe. His people are good and trustworthy. I took so much of infancy for granted with my kids, not recognizing the deep privilege it is to guide a child through his early months, building a foundation of trust and felt safety in his brain that no one can ever take away and that will shape the rest of his life.

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We didn’t exactly know what we were saying “yes” to when we signed up for this gig. We had a vague notion of “loving a child” at the cost of giving up some of our comforts. We didn’t know how indescribably hard it would be and how indescribably good. How my capacity for remembering, focusing, and accomplishing would drastically diminish, while the skin covering my scattered brain would form new lines (that don’t go away) from smiling and laughing and worrying so much.

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People ask all the time, “How will you let him go?” The question also implies, “How could you say ‘yes’ to a love that might be snatched from you?” I admire these people, because they know that foster care isn’t just about babysitting. It’s not just taking care of a kid you’re ready to pass back to his parents at the end of the evening or weekend. It’s welcoming a child into your family, and loving him with your whole heart like he was your own, forgetting sometimes that he isn’t your own, wondering every day when you won’t get to wake up to him anymore, read him stories, and snuggle his face into your neck. Saying “yes” to a future, painful goodbye, where baby won’t understand why he doesn’t get to live in the house with the people who were the only parents and brother and sister he ever really knew.

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We said yes, and we continue to say yes, because he is worth it. This isn’t about us and getting a dopamine rush from baby snuggles, and teaching my children compassion “for the least of these”, and parading around an impossibly cute blue-eyed chubbster (who looks nothing like our family), and getting to read board books again. It’s about him and giving him everything he needs because of the love of Christ for us and His power in us. We can love that which we hold loosely because God holds us firmly, as He holds him, come what may.

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We just finished our first summer read aloud, The Bark of the Bog Owl. The young hero is given sage advice in the beginning of the adventurous story: Live the life that unfolds before you. Love goodness more than you fear evil. Living this life daily unfolding before me, navigating the tumbling waves of foster care and growing children, loving and looking for goodness and trying not to fear the future – this is good advice for me, too.

I look back at what has unfolded already, marveling at the grace that we have been chosen to be actors in this particular drama. Already this summer, John has been to Haiti, playing a small part in the unfolding story of redemption among school children in an impoverished context. Ellie graduated elementary school, bedazzled with awards, and confidently looks ahead to middle school. Jack has refused to get his hair cut for months, enjoying a new shaggy look, while onlookers comment how much he now looks like me! He is about to embark on a week of summer camp at Eagle Fern. Baby Boy is finally babbling, much to my speech-y delight (who cares about crawling).

Unlike last summer with its thousands of miles and monuments, this one is going to be quiet and lazy. We won’t be wading far from our shore, and accomplishments will be few. Loving three children and one good man will be enough for me, as long as I have mint green tea and iced coffee on tap for fortification.

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The summer sun never fails to remind me of His goodness. It also lightens my hair a shade, blending in the grays, grace always coming from unexpected places.

When Skies are Gray

Spring didn’t make a very friendly entrance this year. Day after relentless day of pounding rain and gray skies. The legion of ants, making their annual trek from the maple, across the driveway, up the walls of our house into the kitchen. Temperatures that stubbornly include a “4” in the 10’s place.

And the final clincher – the spring-like buds growing in our hearts without a single encumbrance throughout the winter suddenly froze over last week with an abrupt change in Baby Boy’s case.

We still have him, and he continues to flourish and bloom. But now, a future that seemed admittedly hazy to begin with, forks out in several paths, some of which cause my gut to clench.

Right along with the foster parenting upheaval the first week of spring, biological parenting also weathered some icy blasts, reminding me of my frailty as a mom and my lack of control over the destinies and choices of my children.

This parenting business is such a journey of faith. We toil in the ground, tending the soil and the seedlings, delivering this seemingly smart lesson and that supposedly rich experience. We pull weeds and add nutrients. We make mistakes. Although there are myriad books and scriptural applications, there are no absolute promises that one’s child will take root, grow, and flourish in the way you hope.

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In foster parenting, one hardly dares to hope. I mean, who has hope for a little seedling that is pulled from its plot of origin, replanted in someone else’s garden, only to be transplanted hither and yon, at the whim of the “gardening authorities”?

But hope, one must. It is, after all, a pillar of what remains when all else fades: Faith, Hope, and Love. Faith brought us to this place, in this garden, with these little plants. Love, which sustains and stitches us all together. And hope like the promise of sunshine when skies are gray.

I hope because of our God, whose glory it is always to have mercy. This line from a book of prayers, repeated itself 21 times across the week, multiplied in my thoughts across the days, and melted icicles of doubt the first week of spring.

A track from a pretty little album I sometimes play when I’m home with Baby Boy came on this week: “You are my Sunshine”. Is there a single parent who hasn’t sung this in a rocking chair with a child? The melancholy last line of the chorus, whimsically leaving my lips without a thought with my older kids, chokes me up now.

Onward we walk into the ever lengthening light of spring, remembering that the light we carry from the hand of our merciful God will guide us through the storm. And while we walk forward, we enjoy our little sunshine, whose smile makes us happy, even when skies are gray.

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Stitches

In my family, if there is one thing that goes with a new baby, it’s a quilt. We have stacks of homemade quilts in closets, and sure enough, when Baby Boy arrived in October, more were added to their number.

With each of her nine great-grandchildren, my grandmother eagerly awaited the news from the gender-revealing ultrasound so she could commence quilt-making. Our foster care licensing period was troublesome to her. We had many a conversation in which I assured her that I had no way of knowing the age, gender, or even expected arrival date of our first foster care placement. Perhaps a block-pattern blanket in colorful fabrics for the twin bed would be nice?

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Quilt made by Barbara Pruitt

The last three months with Baby Boy have been peppered with big “firsts”, like bright patches on a quilt: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, smiles, snow. But mostly, our days have been stitched together with unseen, unremarkable moments that make up a life, a family.

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Days stretch out one after another, with hundreds of acts, mundane and intimate. Hours staring into his eyes, touching his skin, speaking strong and silly words into his ears. More minutes face to face, skin to skin, and voice to voice with this little guy than time spent on anything or anyone else combined. This is what babies require and these are the stitches that bind him to us, but more importantly, make him human and whole, capable of stitching on to other, future loves.

It’s a mystery, the way the ordinariness of repetitive caretaking tasks, performed with love and without expectation, add up to important neural connections and human flourishing.

It’s another mystery how God calls us to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice for others, and this is a spiritual act of worship to Him.

I’m less in my head and more on my knees (as in, changing diapers, not prayer), with weight in my arms and snot on my shoulder these days. I don’t have time for deep thoughts or grand adventures. I have had those seasons and I will have them again. But for now, it’s a liturgy of the ordinary (slowly savoring a book by this title – thanks, Heidi!). Baby Boy was knit together in his mother’s womb by the hand of God, and for some reason we get to shelter and nourish this soul with flesh.

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Photo credit: Maria Supin Photography

It’s 9:45pm. The two big kids are sleeping over at their grandparents. Four months ago this would have equaled a quiet, blissful evening of no picky eaters or sibling squabbles, and a lazy morning with long cups of coffee and conversation on the couch. Fewer dishes, longer sentences.

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Photo credit: Maria Supin Photography

Instead two of our baby-holders are gone and we will spend the night coaxing sleep out of a coughing, congested infant. In the morning, when Baby Boy just can’t be coaxed any longer, one of us will pour coffee into two double-walled stainless steel thermoses, while the other pours milk into a hungry mouth.

Each feeding, silly face beckoning a smile, massage, pick up, put down, pacifier plug, and diaper change is our sometimes-joyful, sometimes-exhausted offering, helping stitch together the one thing every human infant requires more than food itself: attachment.

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Photo credit: Maria Supin Photography

We are the temporary substitute for the natural attachment that has been broken in his case. Entering into this brokenness is messy. But as Ann Voskamp writes in her new book, “the only way to care for the disadvantaged is to disadvantage yourself, which is guaranteed to turn out to your advantage” (p. 200).

Baby Boy adds colorful patches to our life, making us more beautiful than we were before. The abrupt shattering of my mostly-controlled, comfortable routine with the sudden appearance of diapers, bottles, crying, and sleeplessness reveals my own brokenness. My idols of comfort and control. My impatience with others, selfishness, and pride. The ordinary tasks of relentless baby caring make me weak, and I remember my need for the One who is strong, whose steadfast, never-failing love covers my failings. He patches the torn mess of my efforts with strong threads, forgiving and reminding me to forgive.

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Quilt made by Carolyn Nichols

A snuffling baby boy cries out, wakening from a too-short nap, and John picks him up, rocking him back to sleep. We don’t know how many more days or months we have with Baby Boy, but today, we will sew down another line, maybe less crooked than the one before. He may never know it was us who pieced and stitched together the first strips of his quilt in a symmetrical, Dryden-ish pattern, but that’s ok. His unique fabric is forever sewn onto ours – a flurry of color and chaos, transforming ordinary into art.

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November’s Gifts

The leaves changed and fell and I hardly noticed. The most virulent, obnoxious election ever flooded the airwaves and feeds, and as of the second week of October, it all seemed very inconsequential, like so much noise. Perhaps that latter ignorance was a gift.

I remember this closing in, the wide world suddenly becoming very small – the size of a rocking chair. Activities narrowing to only a few that matter.

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When my two kids were born, I was leaning close to 30. I’m now just a couple skips from 40 and I have 10 years of mothering experience in my pocket. Ten years of nights that show a clear upward slope of sleeping hours for mama and child. This gives me perspective and hope, because right now, with a 7-week baby in our home, sleep is the topic my brain can’t stop thinking about (dreaming about?).

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The fact that sleep is my biggest challenge right now is a gift. In the world of foster care, that’s a pretty mild complaint.

The election came and went. I was up anyway and watched the inconceivable become reality. The explosion in our little world tempered my response to the political upheaval. Big and small kindnesses of relatives and friends for our family-of-five inspired me and reminded me of the bigger, more important impact of millions of kindnesses over who is in office.

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We suddenly became part of a beautiful community I only barely knew before – foster parents. A circumstance of our case led me to a gracious, wise, seasoned foster mom who has wrapped me under her wing and has spent hours with me on the phone (texting and real conversations) and meets me in person. She encourages, gives helpful advice, lets me question and process, and provides incalculable perspective.

We ran into (ok, walked by) Ellie’s new basketball coach and his family at the annual Thanksgiving Run for the Hungry in our town. Guess who welcomed in children and adopted through foster care for years? Yep. Them.

Other gifts stack up like so many packages, each one unwrapped with gratitude. We landed a compassionate, competent primary care provider, a fantastic foster family immediately responded to my plea for respite care while we are out of town right before Christmas, and our baby boy started daycare without a hitch. My SLP friend Nicole covered my absence from work, making possible the unexpected gift of staying home with baby boy for his first six weeks.

Just as if I had actually given birth, many dear ones sent meals, clothes, baby gear, messages, gifts, and encouraging words and prayers.

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For months we prayed, along with our closest family and friends, that our first foster placement would be the right fit for our family and we would be the right family for that child. I wasn’t picturing a newborn, but he was our first call and it seemed right.

Which is surprising. My friend Annie once half-jokingly introduced me to someone at church as a mom who only started enjoying motherhood when my children learned to read. I shrugged, agreeing with her analysis.

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So we fit our family around this tiny bundle who upends everything as babies do. It’s hard, smelly, tiring, and emotionally weird. But I’ve also pulled out a nice stack of old favorite board books, we’re smiling and laughing more, and widening our little circle of family.

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He is a gift.

For as many days as we have him, we are altogether his, love pouring in to all of us in ever increasing measure.

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First Week

It all began much like the other two. A professional placed a 7-pound human being into my outstretched arms, fully trusting I was up to the challenge.

My heart burst into a million pieces, and in ways I don’t comprehend, a rush of warmth spread through my body.

All the prayers, classes, pages of documents, inspections and preparation of our home and hearts culminated in this moment.

Within a couple hours, Grandparents, Aunt, and Uncle were over with food and diapers. And after eight years of rest, John and I initiated Night One of zero REM sleep.

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Feeding, changing, rocking, gazing into one another’s eyes, attachment, sleep deprivation – it is all very familiar. But. Instead of postpartum hormonal weeping, it is a different kind of emotional maelstrom.

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It’s inexplicably loving this baby like he is my flesh, knowing he is most definitely not my flesh, and not even mine. It’s knowing he needs to be loved and held and nourished like a son, but understanding he is another woman’s son who would be holding and nourishing him if she could. It’s grieving for her and him, truly wanting their brokenness to mend and reunite, yet all the while greedily inhaling his sweet scent and kissing his smooth skin. It’s splitting the night shift with John (because bottles), big sister and brother snuggles (already anticipating their grief), and writing in a first-year calendar (that may never be complete).

I’m starting to understand. Foster care is a gift and a knife.