Adjusting To Our Sons This Summer

The folksy, soulful timbre of Brandi Carlile fills this home most days. I soak in the blend of energy and calm as power toward my day parenting five kiddos who call me Mama. While my wanderlust waxes jealous looking at all your adventures in my social squares, we are finding our new rhythm housebound as we adjust to being a forever family of seven.

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I’m used to being a yes mom. A go-find-the-day’s-fun mom. The four year old asks out of habit and hopeful expectation what we’re going to do today. The olders blink as I spin arms wide to indicate an answer of this. This is what we’re doing today. Home. Being. Being together. Learning to belong together.

It seems like holy healing should blossom more extraordinary, more exquisite, more noticeable than the whole lot of nothing happening in our day to day this summer.

It seems like it should feel a little more kumbaya and a little less kitchen sink full of kid dishes.

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In actuality it is sibling squabbles and slammed doors.

It is a million snacks and a million more redos (for the kids; for myself) as we teach our two new boys the permanency of belonging.

It is pitchers of iced tea with lemon slices from the neighbor’s tree and icy bowls of banana swirl, and silly face selfie sessions to make those late afternoon hours finally move along until daddy gets home.

It is toddler tantrums followed by recovery cuddles and humbly asking for help and acutely feeling my limits.

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The ubiquity of the phrase “You Are Enough” is inescapable. I have never felt less than enough. My newest son climbs onto my lap and clings for dear life. I wonder where this child’s mom is and am swallowed again by the enormity of it.

Me. That’s me. I am the mom. His mom. Thank you, God.

Help.

Grace. Grace is enough. I am not. But grace is. I don’t have to perfect this. I can loosen my worry, loosen my fear, loosen my perfect expectations.

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I sing U2’s lyrics Grace over the boys as they nap – at least sing the same three lines I can remember. I sing and it’s meditation. I sing and it’s medicine.

Every day more furniture and toys are banished to the garage as I hush our home, scale back the things in my face in response to the overwhelming needs. Every day I think this is the day we can make it to the beach. Every day we victory lap simply making it to dinnertime.

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Parenting. Healing. Belonging. These are the long game. One sliced peach. One tantrum. One popsicle. One correction. One cuddle at a time.

I am overwhelmed by the children. Overwhelmed by the need. Overwhelmed by the grace that allows it all to be okay.

 

 

Saying Goodbye

You cried when we walked away, dear boy, and I let you.  More than wanting to shield you from sadness, I want you to know this is the bitter to the sweet. It is appropriate to feel this. You are allowed tears in this life. We cry for the loss of it all and walk away resolved in hope.

You said you were happy he gets to be with his Mommy and Daddy again because everyone should get a chance to be with their mommy and daddy.

I lingered on your face a little longer at this comment. I watched your eyebrow lower and the tiny dimple to the left of your lip flicker with thought.

We were a placeholder. It was always our job and our privilege to say goodbye so their family could be whole again.

You mentioned you’d miss your fun times playing together.

This says so much about you, dear one; the three year old you shared a home with these past many months was not always immediate “fun”. You drew all the goodness and calm and happy inside him to the forefront.

He was so ready to love, though, and you allowed his love a place to land. You didn’t realize it, but every time you received him, you mirrored an unspoken truth of identity to his spirit; he was important – he was still worthy.

Good people do this. They can look beyond a behavior. They can see a soul. They make all the goodness in others rise effervescent to the surface.

We left them there, your foster brother and sister, a newly reunified family at the park, with the wind rushing cold announcing a winter sunset.

You said goodbye to the kids and stayed near their stroller making silly faces as I gave updated bottle and rash ointment and clothing instructions to the adults.

Then we drove away and just like that they were gone.

People ask me how I can do this to you, sweet child. Allow other kids into your home to share your toys, your parents, your emotional space. Let you have to wait a little longer sometimes and ride an emotional wave of goodbyes.

I promise you, my love, that we will only place you in situations that will stretch you but not harm you. This is our family life and we’re in it together.

If I could give you two gifts it would be a generous spirit and a resilient heart; knowing that when you give there will still be an abundance and that feelings only strengthen your heart.

We get to have generosity and resilience because HOPE lives inside us. Hope is why you can love a child as your brother these many months, then wave goodbye in a park parking lot.

Hope.

That it will be restored. That there is a future. That the slow-burn of healing will outlast any resistance.

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ…

We drove away and I could see you both in the rearview – you in the backseat and their family by the swingset.

You cried while the sky drizzled a million blessings on your head and I prayed wordless exhales of gratitude for you, my son, and hope for the son with his rightful family I just left at the park.

 

 

 

10 Things I Wish I Knew the First 30 Days of Foster Placement

 

ONE. This is messy and broken work on the inside. It will also show up messy and broken on the outside. If the kids are young (and especially if there are young bios in the house) there will be a constant onslaught of food on the floor, and broken toys, and ruined clothes, and dirty dishes piling up. It will feel crazy on the inside and crazy on the outside. This is normal.

 

TWO. Black out the calendar. This is not a time to be room mom or do playdates…yet. Start small. Stay home. When the kids can play safe together venture into the backyard. When you can all play safe there, venture to a small fenced in park. These are bunker down days. It will not be your usual pace. You’re used to functioning at a high capacity; from a productivity level it will feel like you are accomplishing nothing. This is normal. You are actually doing quite a lot of important foundation work.

 

THREE. The anxiety of new placements for kids often expresses itself in their bodies. Runny diapers and faucet faces while their stress levels are high is a natural body reaction. The constant snot on furniture and people and your sweater and everything will probably feel gross and stressful while colds spread through the household. It might add to the feeling of chaos internally and externally. This too is normal.

 

FOUR. Create a family language with foster and bio kids of public space and alone zones. All toys and items in the living room are for everyone to use. Bedrooms can be where they have toys that belong to them they don’t have to share as well as a place bio children can go to take a break from foster kids if needed.

 

FIVE. Our certified babysitter family members want to help. Often, however, the behaviors and high-attention needs of our foster kids are overwhelming and out of their know-how to handle. It has been a more beneficial (and relationally healthy) use of our time to have our certified family spend special time or do special outings with our bio children and to use respite families or daycare providers who have foster specific training if we need babysitting help for longer than an hour or two.

 

SIX. Consistency is key. The kids are learning. Even if it seems like they don’t know anything about self-regulation or body awareness or food organization of social interactions or simply how to lay down to go to sleep at night. They are watching and they are learning. Stay consistent. You might not see results yet, but nothing can replace putting in the time and effort now at the forefront to gain the connection and structure and responsiveness and felt-safety the kids will have a few months from now.

 

SEVEN. Have a behavior plan before you are both standing in the thick of it. Have your script ready. Know what you will say, what you will do, and what the child will do. We all imagine ourselves to be a hybrid between Mary Poppins and Karen Purvis; in the heat of it, we are not. Don’t get caught reacting. Know what you will say and do for redirection, direction, and behavior interventions.

 

EIGHT: Set up relational boundaries and expectations with the bio parents early.

 

NINE. Don’t feel bad contacting your social worker about things big or small. They are here for you.

 

TEN. There will be nights you will go to bed in a panic or storm of doubt or near tears wondering “Did I even look my bio child in the eye today? Did I hold the foster kids enough today?” There will be moments when strangers ask you why you do it (foster care) and in the midst of the hard you will come up blank. For the life of you, you cannot remember. Don’t be alarmed. It feels hard because it is supposed to feel hard right now. I recently heard a seminar by Lorraine Fox, a professor with years in the field, who reminded us that love is not the results. Love is the effort. The results are not ours. Only the try.

 

 

More Kids? “More” Kids.

We have walked our family to the ledge again. This time we did it in full awareness of the cost. On Wednesday there was a text. On Thursday I was driving a two year old and two month old to our home. For the past month we’ve been at full go.

For a question marked length of a meantime we are a family of seven. They will definitely be with us until December. They will possibly be with us longer, depending on how healthy their parents can set up a home and how their court dates progress.

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I have been using up all my emotional reserves developing relational boundaries with the birth parents. Even so, we are still for the birth parents. We are rooting for them to figure it out. Generational poverty and subsequential lack of education is not a reason on its own to dissolve a family. When they know better they can do better. In the meantime, we are here.

You have more kids?

I like to think of it as we have “More” kids. Foster kids are normal kids. They’re also “more” kids. Because of their trauma background everything is more. Feelings, triggers, emotions, reactions, redirecting required, self-soothing strategies needing to be taught, body-awareness, food organization, every little thing is MORE. Parenting a “more” kid is physically exhausting and requires a deep well of emotional capacity and a good amount of general creative problem solving.

Honestly if it were just the infant our family schedule probably wouldn’t change our day-to-day that much. Nothing would feel drastically different.

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But it’s not just an infant. It’s an infant and a two year old  and our four year old and our six year old and our eight year old and we peel ourself into strips to pass out to each child to meet a need, wishing that strip wasn’t quite so see-through-thin to give. 

The days are hard and isolating since our one fun friend outing ended in a double-stroller underboob sweat up the canyon from the farthest netherlands of the zoo to the car and our other outing was a rushed drive to the emergency room. I have talked to the produce guys more than actual friends face-to-face this month. Raise the roof hands for our unlimited text upgrade so I can keep my humor with potty-mouthed real-time updates to my bestie.

These are bunker down days.

Except for the daily drives as my cheat to simultaneously get three tired tinies asleep for naps, we stay home. I am a non-stay-home, stay-home-mom. We are usually out taking in our world. I am not a homebody. My four year old is not a homebody. We are learning to be homebodies because we are needing to be homebodies for these little ones who have so much to learn and need a safe, predictable space to learn it.

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These are strawberries and quesadillas are good-enough days.

These are Jesus take the wheel days.

These are days when it’s not only okay that I am not enough, but preferred. I don’t want to be enough for this. Everything broken or hard in our scenario right now is layered physical and spiritual. I don’t want to be responsible for the energy and the healing. I only want to be faithful to be there and allow God to bring in everything else required. I don’t want to be enough for this but I choose to believe we live in a universe where all things will be provided for restoration. Therefore we can respond in generous abundance instead of have our actions tied to a mentality of lack.

We’ve seen improvement with the toddler, and growth with the baby, and bonding with all, empathy and sacrifice and generosity from our kids, and all the hard stuff in between and it all comes back to time.

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The hard part about hard work is the time required. There is no way to maneuver around it and the consistency needed in coaching and engaging with the kids. We have to put in the time, which means letting go of a lot of things. Our house is significantly messier, all flat surfaces covered in sippy cups and empty Coke cans and diapers and crusted cereal. RSVPing “no” to evites is my new intoxicator. And each child, except the oldest, is held to sleep because more than anything they individually want to know there is time for them alone.

We are exhausted. We are good.

 

 

Race and Blood and Poetry

I haven’t been able to focus well the past couple days. I wanted to Instagram you a picture of painting mini pumpkins together and our puddle walks in the rain. But I couldn’t show the good we were having as a family while my head and heart were simultaneously ruminating on the pain bursting through the surface of our country.

There’s no time to catch a breath. Before we have made sense of the most recent incident a newest one is thrust upon us. The confusion and the pain packed and compounded instead of processed. Wanting a straight story from the media we are left unsatisfied – there won’t be one. We look for the truth to justify a side. Therein is the problem. We’re still trying to divide up sides. We’re still trying to judge if it was deserved or unjust. It’s too simple to villainize the police always. The only side, the only straight story we get to know is we are all pulling the trigger and we are all a people bleeding.

I have never been more afraid as a parent than when we were fostering a young black boy who was tall for his age but emotionally charged from trauma. It is only a matter of time, I thought, before someone hurts him. A stranger on the street this time.

My friends of color who are raising their sons and daughters to be extra respectful, extra graceful, extra smiley, extra concise and precise as perception shifting survival tactics live with this fear daily. It is a stone in stomach debilitation of fear and feelings I will never fully know the weightyness of.

The mannerisms of my grandparents’ generation were subtle. A slide of a purse from chair to lap. A step closer to the sidewalk’s edge. But I noticed and I’m willing to bet the black man walking past did too.

On a recent visit, my dad began reminiscing about how he and a few classmates transferred to the all black high school in the ’60’s when Oklahoma City was desegregating slowly and the surprising few people who gave him and his girlfriend of color scuffle as they went to diners on the fringe of racially divided neighborhoods.

We’re moving closer, I thought, with each generation. We are learning. We are moving closer to facing our bias, embracing our histories, listening to what it is like to be a person of color.  But God help me, I find myself at times adjusting my purse or locking the car door or walking slightly more around in the name of safety as a man of color approaches, just like two generations before. It is in all of us no matter how tenderized by this topic. So I continue to question and sit in hard conversations and read stories and poetry from people of color; black women in particular.

The violence keeps happening too fast to settle into the comfort that we are healing our racially brutalized past as a nation and forming a new way into the future.

I changed our elementary schools a couple years ago after more than one adult working there gave me the color blind speech. Color blindness is a refusal to acknowledge the very real existing pain.

Which makes me wonder if for a while we all tried to move on too quickly in our generation. We tried to say “not me” and “not a problem anymore” and refused to look at the bloody now. There are faces and bodies in our newsfeed that leave us saddened and confused. There are organized protests that leave us wanting to make judgements on the effectiveness or non-peacefulness of the frustrated responses of rage, while the peaceful ones are often not shown across media.

It is time to look at the blood. To point out the blood to others. It is time to say we’re all dehumanizing eachother, but our friends of color are hurting most and in ways we cannot fathom.

When the world doesn’t make sense to me, words often do. I came back to this poem today as meditation, as prayer, as a way to listen to the pain and to stare at the blood and not look away. Will you read it with me?

 

Sons and Daughters by Maya Angelou

If my luck is bad

And his aim is straight

I will leave my life

On the killing field

You can see me die

On the nightly news

As you settle down

To your evening meal. 

 

But you’ll turn your back

As you often do

Yet I am your sons

And your daughters too. 

In the city streets

Where the neon lights

Turn my skin from black

To electric blue

My hope soaks red

On the gray pavement

And my dreams die hard

For my life is through. 

 

But you’ll turn your back

As you often do

Yet I am your sons

And your daughters too. 

 

In the little towns

Of this mighty land

Where you close your eyes

To my crying need

I strike out wild

And my brother falls

Turn on your news

You can watch us bleed. 

 

In morgues I’m known

By a numbered tag

In clinics and jails

And junkyards too

You deny my kin

Though I bear your name

For i am a part

Of mankind too. 

 

But you’ll turn your back

As you often do

Yet I am your sons

And your daughters too. 

 

Turn your face to me

Please

Let you eyes seek my eyes

Lay your hand upon my arm

Touch me. I am real as flesh

And solid as bone. 

 

I am no metaphor

I am no symbol

I am not a nightmare

To vanish with the dawn

I am lasting as hunger

And certain as midnight. 

 

I claim that no council 

Can contain me

Nor fashion me to its whim. 

You, come here, hunch with me in this dingy doorway, 

Face with me the twisted mouth threat

Of one more desperate

And better armed than I. 

 

Join me again at today’s dime store counter

Where the word to me 

Is still no. 

Let us go, your shoulder, 

Against my shoulder, 

To the new picket line

Where my color is still a signal

For brutes to spew their bile

Like spit in my eye. 

 

You, only you, who have made me 

Who share this tender taunting history with me

My fathers and mothers

Only you can save me

Only you can order the tides, 

That rush my heart, to cease

Stop expanding my veins

Into red riverlets. 

 

Come, you my relative

Walk the forest floor with me

Where rampaging animals lurk, 

Lusting for my future

Only if your side is by my side

Only if your side is by my side

Will I survive. 

 

But you’ll probably turn your back

As you often do

Yet I am your sons

And your daughters too. 

 

 

Healing Hugs

There’s a child on my couch. He’s sleeping on a borrowed pillow but the nightmares are his own. We sang Jesus Loves Me at bedtime, right after we made sure the blinds and blankies and bad dreams were all tucked away just so. I sang. He giggled. And asked for hugs. More hugs. This tiny child, asking to be loved, so easy to love.

I don’t know his story. He’s only with us this week. Maybe he’s been given that same relentless story of generational poverty passed on like the unavoidable and unwanted heirloom it is. His body bears witness. They tell me he’s four, but he is smaller than our two year old. A quick mental measurement of the length of his body against the length of the this couch leaves me wondering how many hugs were missed. The loving touch required to grow. How many hugs would it take to fill the negative space of these couch cushions and his heart?

The backstory isn’t required to know our job. We are here to continue the healing process while his adoptive foster parents rest. We are here for the sacrament of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as daily Eucharist. We are here to see childhood rights of swinging in the park and circling bikes through culdesacs met. We are here to speak and sing words of worthiness and wholeness and identity over him.

And hugs. We are always here for hugs. Especially for this child who asks for them more than food or water as hourly sustenance. I wonder how he fits all his resiliency inside that tiny body carrying his courage around. He sleeps and I sing and gratitude hits anew we get to live this life as the redeemed.