Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Myth of Perfect Parenting

As a first time parent 12 years ago, I left few stones unturned in my efforts to parent well. A great deal of research went into what types of bottles, diapers, rash creams, formulas, strollers, cribs, sleep training, detergents to purchase...even what music to play in the nursery. Keenly aware this was likely my one shot at parenting, this type A personality wanted to do well. I didn't think of it as perfectionism...but more so as good stewardship of what I had been entrusted.

Eleven years later as first time foster parents, my pendulum had swung far in the other direction. Of course I still possess a desire to serve well, but my road tested and oft-humbled ego had a much more realistic and practical approach. We will keep the children God brings to us safe--and love them. This was essentially my strategy: Our family is functioning pretty well...these children will just get on board. Clearly it will be better than the difficult circumstances from which they have come. In its own way, this too, felt like stewardship.

As time has built bonds with these girls and my bio children have morphed into full-fledged tweens, I have found myself somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Needs of the children have come to light over time. I have tried to dig in and meet each where they are and in the process found myself frustrated, exhausted and inconsistent. Being pushed to the limits of self has led me at times to take on a "whack a mole" approach--dealing with squeaky wheels and burning bushes. This from the girl who has a written family vision statement... How God must laugh!

Through this process I have realized that 'perfectly' parenting each of my current five is impossible. I am drinking from a fire hose. There is just not enough time in the day, energy in my body or insight in my mind and heart to give them all a perfect childhood. I am not every referring to Pinterest worthy meals, pony rides and perfect braids...I gave up on that long ago. Some days I struggle to cover basic table manners and homework time--much less reach their hearts and combat the lies that already plague each of them to some degree.

My flesh has failed. I cannot do this with the excellence I desire.

This realization was simultaneously freeing and deep-sigh inducing.
Am I in over my head?
Am I doing more damage to these kids than good?
What were we thinking signing up to take on more when we already had our hands full with three?
Were we obedient or arrogant?

As I confessed all this to God over the course of a few weeks of somewhat hand-wringing prayer, He sent me perspective-shifting and peace-bringing truth.

"Today, we groan as we serve God, because we know all too well our handicaps and blemishes, but one day we shall serve Him perfectly!" Warren Wiersbe

And because that quote came from a study I am currently doing on the book of Revelation, it led to a revelation of my own: We simply cannot serve perfectly this side of heaven.

Furthermore, these people I have been subconsciously trying to polish up and perfect are children...little, immature but growing people. The point of childhood is to train them up no doubt, but we are preparing to launch them into the world as adults--not place them in museums as flawless specimens. They are each unique works of art, full of imperfection and quirks.

As I have received calls from teachers about issues in need of addressing (in bios and fosters), sat across from psychologists and engaged in conferences with faculty and my husband I have had to giggle that 'perfecting' a child ever crossed my mind. After all, at 41 I am more aware of my own inadequacies, weaknesses and vulnerabilities than ever. We all have a long way to go--and this is the journey of life.

I am not for throwing in the towel and settling for mediocrity...but I am a huge fan of perspective. Stop. Breathe. Laugh. Savor. Coach. Love. And agree that the only way to make it through this parenting gig with our sanity and our faith is to take it all one grace-filled day at a time.

Regardless of how the current circumstances line up with my strategy or plan, "THIS is the day the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it." Psalm 118 NASB

Thursday, April 21, 2016

To the bio parent of my foster child

In the last couple of months God impressed it upon my heart to reach out to one of my foster children's biological parents. After going through the appropriate channels for permission, I was able to get a letter out recently--our first communication in 11 months. I heard it was received with tears.

I didn't know if God intended to open a channel to ongoing communication, or if it was to be a one time letter, so I went with a basic introduction, high level update on the girls and encouragement that redemption is a gift offered to everyone--no sin was too great for God to be waiting on the other side with outstretched arms for a future of healing and hope.

That 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of copy paper was scrawled out between the daily loads of her babies' clothing in my laundry room and bathed in prayer. Honestly, it merely scratched the surface of all the words I have for this parent and those of others we have had in our home.

In the last year as four foster children have lived with us for periods of time ranging from 10 days to 11 months, I have pondered all the things I would want to say to their parents, if given the chance.

None of these children arrived via a typical adoption scenario where I would express gratitude for their parents' bravery in placing these children in a situation where they could have a more secure life. These children were all involuntarily removed for various reasons--often combinations of metal health, neglect, incarceration, substance abuse.

Many of my imagined conversations were full of frustration and anger. As children weep uncontrolled, angry tears that I cannot fix, suffer panic attacks, experience nightmares--or take out their negative emotions on me I disrespectful ways-- I have less than loving thoughts.

I wish I could video the gut-wrenching tantrums and take them to high school classrooms with the message: THIS is the cost of drug addiction, domestic violence, living a tough gangsta life..
I cannot look at an arrest record in the paper without thinking about the number of children each mugshot represents. My mind reels with questions I want to shout:
How could you do this to an innocent child?
What drug/man/hurt/crime was worth missing tucking your baby into bed at night or watching them master something new?
How does it feel to know someone else is rocking your crying child, being gifted their artwork and receiving their goodnight hugs and kisses?
Why can't you get it together for your babies' sake?

When compassion wins, I am saddened by just how deeply imprisoned in sin/illness/addiction/past hurt these parents must be--because who willingly endangers or neglects a child? It is from this place I can genuinely pray for restoration and healing. I know THIS is the place from which I must serve--despite how emotionally messy it can feel.

In many ways it would be simpler to just make these birth families "bad" and the system a "good" savior--but if you are reading this you are old enough to know real life isn't that simple. Looking into the pasts of many of these parents I realize they are the products of abuse, neglect and painful childhoods themselves. They need deliverance from their past and healing too.

This perspective changes the way I foster parent. It leads me to pray with the children for the parents--that they would know restorative, redemptive healing and love. It also leads me to zone in on truth with these kiddos--the importance of respect for authority, boundaries, responsibility, spiritual connection, work ethic and education.

As I was halfway through writing this post last week I received a response letter from the birth parent--it was open, kind, grateful and full of hope. It also requested that I continue to correspond. My oldest foster daughter reveled in the fact that we are pen pals. I saw an immediate change in her demeanor--she became much softer and affectionate towards me. Funny how peacemaking has that effect.

And like most everything else in this foster journey, I have no idea what God is up to so I am holding on for the ride.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Hope Blooms

This has been a dark Winter in my soul.

In January we were led to request the removal of a foster child from our home--a decision I never, EVER would have understood until it happened in my own family life. We have readjusted our family dynamic for the third time in 11 months--from family of 5 to family of 7 to family of 8 and then a different version of family of 7.

We've been weary, confused--even resentful--which has brought guilt and shame. For a while it seemed the more unselfish we became with our bio family--the more selfish we felt as we tried to cling to the remaining few things that were just 'ours.'

After court a couple of weeks ago people asked if we were pleased with the outcome and my honest response was that we don't even know the specific outcome we are hoping for anymore. Of course we desire growth and safety for our girls and their siblings...but the specific way God plans to deliver that is still not clear.

It feels like we are in a vast, desolate land at this point in the journey--wandering, waiting to see if another court date in late Summer will provide any more direction. As I thought about this metaphor, I was reminded of a verse our pastor shared with us a few years ago during a very difficult circumstance.

"Even the wilderness and desert will rejoice in those days; the desert will blossom with flowers."  Isaiah 35:1

And as if on cue, just as new Spring buds were erupting in my yard, an almost forgotten fractured relationship experienced its own new life. An envelope appeared--literally years after we had given up on resolution--its contents suggesting that as we surrendered God had kept working to restore. Yes, indeed, in the desert a rose will bloom.

The reminder that God's timetable is rarely in line with our own breathed new winds of hope into my sails. My spirit felt lifted by the reminder that in God's economy stories aren't over until He says they are. He is in the redemption business. Our obedience in humility, justice and mercy are not in vain.

"I will not cause pain without allowing something new to be born, says the Lord" Isaiah 66:9

What a promise! Nothing is wasted--even pain and dark Winters. I am grateful for the azaleas, cherry blossoms and other Spring buds--reminding me that what we perceive as death and dormancy often clouds the new birth that will follow.

As if God has lifted a veil, I see signs of life all around and am reminded that He is in the business of making all things new. He is Creator, Healer, Restorer...but we must have faith during the dark days that Spring is coming and new life always comes through the pains of birth.

We have our laughter back. Joy is returning to my heart--and the impact on my marriage and the little lives under this roof is its own reward.  I'm recommitted to marriage, motherhood and family as a call to joyful service rather than the attitude of woe-is-me frustrating drudgery I was allowing to infiltrate my attitude.

I give up on trying to figure out where this is going to end up--and choose to lean hard into Him today--moment by moment instead.

I am so grateful for a God that leads and instructs me time ad again--always leaving me with a better glimpse of who He is.

O, Spring, welcome to my yard and especially to my heart!

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Night Before Court

It has been 10 1/2 months since the phone call asking if we could take in two little girls. All we were told on that Spring afternoon was gender, age and names (ironically, one of which was wrong). Until they showed up on our doorstep, we had no idea about their race, hair color or last names--much less the more intimate details like what foods they like and don't, favorite colors, future hopes, fears and shoe size.

We entered into foster care hoping to provide some breathing room for a family in crisis--feeling called to make space for troubled adults to work out their issues and be reunified with their children. In the last 10 months glimpses of a complicated back story have come bit by bit through our girls, their siblings and some good old fashioned google/facebook searching.

After all this time, I am still trying to put together the story that led to this place... amazed at how the choices of people I had never met could so powerfully impact the life of my family. We are forever changed as a result of the struggles of these strangers.

We've done our best to keep going with "normal life." This week it was Spring Break, Easter & a birthday. Tomorrow I will be back at the courthouse--for the 5th time in 10 months--to hear what other virtual strangers (attorneys, judge, experts) think about the next steps in these girls' lives. Honestly, one of the most surreal aspects of this process/system is that despite our intimate involvement as interim parents, I will be present as a mere spectator. I am not required to attend, nor will I be called upon to speak or offer an opinion.

The fate of these girls, their siblings and my little family will be directly effected by decisions and timelines--and we don't have the slightest idea about the outcome. THIS is the most challenging (and sanctifying!) part of being a foster parent--the complete lack of control. Frankly, the longer we are in this role the more I have learned to accept it. The outcome I envision has changed drastically and repeatedly in the last few months. My role is to serve, not to decide.

Although I am an advocate at heart, I no longer feel confident about what direction I am even hoping this all goes. The Lord as been teaching me there is a fine line between advocacy and arrogance. I think of Peter trying to stop the high priest's servant who came to collect Jesus that fateful night in the Garden--as if he knew better than our Lord what should happen next.

The timing of this season seems to be no small coincidence. I feel God showing me how this is an Easter story.

I carry an agony of the difficult goodbyes/transitions in our future, the Friday hopelessness of all the pain these little hearts carry, the silence of Saturday waiting and wondering if God has forgotten about us and the Sunday joy of resurrection and redemption...I am hopeful, exhausted, and slightly afraid. Mostly, I just want to know the plan and to be able to tell the hearts in my home what to expect. 

I want to protect and prepare them. But in the end, I don't know what God is up to. I don't know which direction this story is heading--or the timeline within which it will occur. I cannot trace His Hand, so I must choose to trust His heart.

So I breathe deep. I pray. And I show up to find out a future God already knows.

An Easter hymn seems most appropriate: "Because He Lives, I can face tomorrow. Because He Lives, all fear is gone. Because I know He holds the future..."

If you have a moment to remember our crew tomorrow, it would be appreciated. Lots of anticipation among everyone involved. Pray for truth to be made plain, for wisdom to prevail and for peace and calm assurance to envelope all the hearts involved.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Too Small Nike Shorts and the Gospel

"You don't really love me. You don't. I know you don't!"
She sat in the middle of her bedroom floor and shouted at me through angry tears.

The stated trigger for this outburst was my denial of her demand to wear a pair of inappropriate shorts that had been ruled out the night before. We were in a standoff that was much deeper than a silly pair of last-year's Nikes.  A lot of pain led her here and no formula from my training in how to parent foster children was going to work like a silver bullet. These things take time--and they are messy, multi-layered, complex and exhausting.

"I do love you. I love you very much," I assured her.
She fired back, "No, you don't!"

This happened over a week ago and even as I type it I can feel literal pain in my chest. I don't love her? Really? Just that morning I had spent half an hour working on plans for her birthday party. For the last 10 1/2 months I have rearranged my life, put my birth family on the altar, resigned from several other responsibilities, kissed her and prayed with her each night, brushed her hair every morning, mothered her and literally emptied myself in a desire to show this child love. I have been humbled--and sanctified beyond what I imagined.

My head knows she is a hurting little person who, unfortunately, has seen and heard a lot in her short life. Many of her models of relationships, conflict and love have not been healthy. Yes, my head acknowledges all that, but my heart was still wounded by her piercing words.

Out of privacy I cannot elaborate on all the circumstances surrounding this little slice of a school morning--but for the 1,000th time in our 10 months of foster parenting I saw the Gospel. God gives us guardrails out of His love. He draws lines. He gives us so much freedom, grace and hope but we persist to perseverate on the comparatively small things He deems off-limits and rush to the self-centered declaration that His denial of our desire is an indicator of His lack of love.

I am guilty.

Later, when apologies had been made and our relationship was on the road to being restored, I calmly asked her, "What does love look like to you?"

"I don't know," she replied.

And we got to talk about that for a few minutes... It didn't take the puffiness out of her eyes or the emotional exhaustion out of both of our hearts. It didn't completely take away the sting I still carry, but it was a sign that God is planting seeds.

There is no easy road to hard-but-important lessons. He is teaching us both. And that is love.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Present

When I stay away from writing more than a week or so, it can be difficult to come back. Like catching up with an old friend you've been absent from too long, it is hard to know where to begin. I want to just dive in--to tell the truth-- but these days MY story is inexorably tied to the story of lots of other (mostly little) people. I must respect that my story is also their story, even as I long to express all that is going on in my own heart.

Just typing that paragraph makes me tired. It's complicated. So, I am unusually quiet. 

This week marks 10 months since our oldest foster daughter, Bug, joined our family. It has been 3 months since her youngest sister, Gigi, moved in and  7 weeks since the middle sister, LuLu, moved out. This week I had the opportunity to see my blondie for the first time since her departure.

It was just five minutes, but my arms can still feel the tender hug 48 hours later. My ears are still ringing with the sound of her shout, "Jennnn-niiiiii-ferrrrrrrrr" and the sight of her swinging arms and ponytail as she ran open armed to me. I will always love that little girl.

It sounds heartless, but I had not yet shed a tear over her departure in late January. There honestly hasn't been time to process. As I drove away from our reunion my heart felt the sharp ache of her absence and the impact she has made on my life.

A friend recently observed that it will likely take months or years to truly absorb all that has transpired in this season and how it has impacted our family. I think she's right.

There's just no time for analysis right now. I am in the midst of life, therapy appointments, baseball season, musical rehearsals, soccer, bio family visits, overseeing school assignments, teacher conferences, tax preparation, homemaking, trying to be a partner to my husband and SO MUCH laundry!

And tonight, I am at peace with this. 

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot, 
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build, 
a time to weep and a time to laugh, 
a time to mourn and a time to dance, 
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak...
Ephesians 3: 1:7 NIV

There will come a time when I can marinate in all that has occurred.
But that is not today.

Now is the time to be present--in all the challenges of the emotional roller coaster, the mounds of clothing, the many souls in my home that need broken little me to look in their eyes and love their hearts.

And God willing, I will deal with all the rest tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Preparing to be a Middle School Mom

As the famously dreaded middle school years approach for our triplets, I have tried to have my eyes open to what this new chapter will require of me. Since we haven't officially begun, it is safe to say I am now the most knowledgeable I will ever feel about this subject. ;-) I decided I needed to go ahead and write while I still know everything.

No doubt, I will review this post three years from now with chuckles, but I also believe there is a gift of perspective from outside that often gets distorted by our own fears and rationalizations once we are in the middle.

Here are a few (perhaps naive, but hopeful) notes to myself as I become a "Middle School Mom."

1- It is time to start taking my prayer game seriously. In recent weeks, I have been inspired by Priscilla Shirer's book, Fervent. We, as parents, and our children are up for far more of a fight than we fully understand as we enter the adolescent years. There is truly a war raging for our children's hearts, passions and loyalties. They are bombarded at every turn via media and marketing in addition to traditional peer pressure. We cannot prepare them for every specific scenario--but we can invest in their hearts and bathe them in prayer.

Additionally, quiet time is essential to keeping me centered, grounded and focused on what matters. When exhausted, not-yet-mature, hormonal people come home I want it to be to a Mama that is prayed up and ready to receive.

2- Clear my plate a bit to make space to be available. One thing that has already starting to happen is the tendency for my kids to come home and 'disappear' for a bit. Because we are doing this adolescence thing three different ways simultaneously, I can see that it takes on many forms. I have one that goes straight to her room to draw, read, make origami, listen to music or otherwise zone out. I have another that grabs a ball or looks for a neighbor to play with and yet another that turns to screens.

The one thing they have in common is their decompressing frequently doesn't start with coming to me. I want to give my preteens space for self care and rest, but I am finding that if I go to them after a few minutes, they generally open up and talk.

My almost twelve year olds aren't always asking for me anymore, but I am finding that they sure don't seem to mind that I am here. Even when friends are over, being a room or two away seems to be a great freedom/security combo.

In those increasingly rare moments when they do initiate a conversation about issues in their world, I want to be able to press pause on what I am doing and be physically and emotionally there. I am reordering my day so that, when possible, the most pressing things are handled while the kids are in school--freeing me up for more flexibility in the time they are home.

3- To stay the adult and not get sucked in to the drama that accompanies hormones.
I probably should just leave that sentence there and walk away.

Kids are surrounded by peers all day long. They do not need a 41 year old woman rolling around in the mud with them when they get home and share hurtful or hard things. Even if I do have personal feelings about a kid that has wounded one of mine, my job is to stay above the fray.

I am to be rooted, rested and ready to guide my children through the turbulent waters with maturity--not jump in and start insulting another child or their family life to assuage my offspring's hurt feelings.

At the end of the day, these are children--even the hurtful ones--learning how to navigate relationships in this big world. I pray when the shoe is on the other foot (because it undoubtedly will be at some point) the person we offend's Mama will be modeling grace and understanding for their child in return.

Frankly, extending that same grace to the other Mamas in the midst of this season isn't such a bad idea either. Most of us are figuring this out as we go, stumbling a bit even with the best of intentions.

4- To love them fiercely (which includes boldly speaking the truth to them)
As long as I can remember we have told our children that we are FOR them. Same team. Biggest fans.
It is a mantra in our marriage as well: "We are on the same team."

But being on the same team does not mean refusing to see and discuss flaws or potential pitfalls. Truly loving our children involves pointing out the areas where we see they are at risk of going off the rails. Perpetuating a false sense of perfection is not a healthy long term strategy.

Quality time and relationship build the strong foundation for earning the right to be heard on these matters. We've had quite a few conversations that start with "because we love you, we need to address this."

I really believe foundation is everything.

"It is easier to build strong children than to fix broken men."
-Frederick Douglass

5- To not parent in a vacuum.
The Lord powerfully used many families in my adolescence to mold and shape me in addition to the one I was born into. Perhaps that is why I feel so strongly about this point.

Parenting my children well means investing in the lives of their friends and classmates too. One of the most disappointing things about our early foray into middle school is watching the scarcity principle begin to rear its ugly head. It is, of course, human nature/survival instinct to make sure our pack is OK before we think about others, but I believe God calls us to more.

Not only is it the right thing to be concerned with more than just "us," it is wise. One of the best things I can do for the growth and health of my children is to remember that their community is shaping them. A rising tide lifts all boats.

This means volunteering at school when we can, supporting the children's/youth ministries that are pouring truth in their life, cheering for peers and classmates whose interests and accomplishments may or may not coincide with theirs, loving those I am co-parenting with and seeking to support them as their village.

It is a travesty when parents become all consumed in making sure their child gets their share to the detriment of others around them--not so we can all be the same, but so everyone has room to grow and blossom. We don't raise kids in a vacuum. Healthy adults have the fingerprints of lots of people and experiences throughout their life.

I know I am just starting this journey so I submit these thoughts with great humility. I am under no illusions that it won't come with bumps, bruises and lessons learned the hard way--but starting with a strategy certainly can't hurt!