Foster Parenting, Part 1

You know how sometimes you have an idea, and once you think it you can’t unthink it?  And it just sort of percolates in the back of your brain, just hanging out?

We’ve had an idea for years that has come and gone in intensity, leading up until now, when we have been actively pursuing it in the hopes of making it reality.

Here’s how it started…

Back in 2003, Kullervo went to Basic Training with the Army.  It was the first time in our long (ha!) two years of marriage that we’d been apart.  At all.  Ten weeks apart, then a weekend together, then another five weeks.  It was tough.

When it was over, we wanted a baby (nothing says, ‘Let’s make a baby!’ like three months apart, right?  Right?).  But I was only 21, we were still in school, and babies seemed like things grown ups did.  So we got a cat.

Fast forward a couple of months, and it turned out that a cat is no substitute for a baby (they’re way easier, but what did I know back then?  I was a baby myself!).  So we decided to heck with good reasoning and judgment.  We were going to have a baby!  So we removed the goalie and waited.

And waited.

I tracked my temperature and did all the good old wives’ tales to assist.

And we waited.

And we gave up.  We were young, we shouldn’t have problems with baby-making.  But we did.  And after months of waiting, I figured I just couldn’t get pregnant.  So we figured we’d wait a few years (like, until graduation, maybe?) and then adopt.  No big deal.  Kullervo’s sister is adopted.  My favorite cousin is adopted.

Really.  I know so many women who struggle with infertility and go through invasive treatments and put so much heart and soul into all of the agony and really and truly suffer as a result.  But that wasn’t me.  I had the occasional pang when I’d see a pregnant woman, and I got sad every month when I wasn’t pregnant, but that was the extent of it.

*Aside: my heart breaks for those women for whom the infertility struggle impacts so deeply.  I in no way want to minimize the very real pain that goes along with it; just for me, it was not something I struggled with at that time.

And 18 months later, at the least convenient time, I got pregnant with Oliver.  And then Hazel.  And then we decided we would adopt.  The bee was in our bonnets; we were sure adoption was in our future.  But then we were pregnant again, twice more!

But the adoption story has always been in the back of my mind.  So, after Fitz was born, in the middle-of-the-night feedings, I was reading books about adoption and trying to plan for it.

When we decided to get serious about looking into adoption, Kullervo and I both used the Google, and while our opposite-personality search terms were different, we both came across similar things that made us rethink adoption for us, and moved us in another direction.

Then those Planned Parenthood videos came out.  Remember those?  While Kullervo and I felt like we had very different beliefs about women’s rights in our country (as in, stay up all night debating and falling asleep in tears), we both felt like what was happening with abortions in Planned Parenthood was a call to action.  Or, rather, I said that if a person does not believe abortions should be legal, that person has a responsibility to help care for the children that are born.

And we started praying about it and looking for adoption in the Bible.  And we began looking into adoption agencies.

Then we had another brain bug… what if we became foster parents instead?  Kullervo was initially very against it, and so was I.  Giving a child back to the parents who had had their parental rights taken away in the first place, if all goes well?  That’s tantamount to accepting a future heartbreak in your life at the get-go.  Best and worst case there is pain and suffering involved.  Could we do that?  We were pretty sure it would just be hard for us, hard for the kids, hard for everyone.  What a terrible idea.

But we couldn’t stop thinking about it.  The Bible says to take care of the least of these.  The Bible says to take care of the widows and the orphans, and this wasn’t exactly that, but it was close.  These children are hurting—physically, emotionally.  They have been through trauma, and then further affected by being removed from the home they knew.

Could we, who try really hard to make hospitality a priority, really say that loving these children would be too hard?

We couldn’t unthink it.  So we looked further.  Our county has informational meetings about foster parenting every couple of months, so we registered for the next one and hired a babysitter for the kids.

Could this be our future?  (Spoiler alert… it was!)

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Holding It In

Have you ever had that feeling?  That feeling right after you read something poignant, something true, something you’ve been avoiding thinking about because thinking about it would hurt, and you don’t have time for that sort of emotional volatility because your kids are home and Octonauts only lasts 22 minutes and you’ve already spent two of them refilling your coffee and four of them reading whatever it was that set you off?  So instead of thinking too hard about it, you look away from whatever you were reading, stand up, and then have to double over because the ceiling just shrank on you, and you have to hold your insides in because they are in danger of somehow falling out?  But you definitely cannot cry, or weep, because every time you do your face gets all blotchy and lights up like a tattle tale, and the last thing you want to do is explain to your kids why you might be sad, because sad doesn’t begin to describe it and plus words are so hard.  So you angrily swipe away the renegade tear and curse at it for betraying all the things you are desperately working to keep inside, and didn’t that stupid, careless tear notice you were HOLDING YOUR INSIDES IN AND THAT TEARS ARE SUPPOSED TO LIVE INSIDE?!

Yeah, me neither.

A little more than year ago I sat down and wrote in my journal about sexual assault.  The about-to-be President of the United States had been exposed for admitting and being proud of the way that he treated women, and the nation’s response to it had left me awake at night reliving my own experiences with sexual assault.  There have been so many,  and I don’t remember how some of them ended.  And looking back on them now, re-reading what I wrote, I see how much I qualify my experiences.  I downplay them.  I take responsibility for other people’s actions.  Maybe that time didn’t count, because…  Technically, it wasn’t… I should have… It wasn’t as bad as…

Now, I never do this to other people.  When people have talked to me about what’s going on in their lives, I have never thought to say, ‘Well, that doesn’t really count,’ or, ‘That isn’t as bad as what this other person experienced.’  In fact, for other people, I am generally the champion of reminding people that just because someone else may have experienced something worse, more traumatic, more difficult does not mean that what they are going through is not worth talking about or having feelings about.

I am all in when it comes to giving others permission to have their feelings, talk about their bad days, and know that they are seen and believed and heard in their challenges.

And I do not allow myself the same grace.

So, recently, the social media #metoo posts about people’s experiences with sexual harassment, assault, or rape have brought me right back.  Added to that is a conscious decision of late to be more gentle with how I treat myself, and a paragraph in a book about forgiveness.  I’m a mess.  But I don’t have time to be a mess—Wednesdays are busy, y’all—so instead of pouring more coffee I find myself holding my insides in.  And I’m going to be okay with that.

Sixteen

It was a hectic morning.  Oliver had Cyclocross camp at 8:45, Hazel had to be picked up from a sleepover to go to dance camp at 10, baby Hawkeye had a doctor’s appointment at 10:30, Oliver had to be picked up at noon, and Hazel had to be picked up at 1, and taken straight to gymnastics practice.  (Yes, I have been informed that my life would be less hectic if my kids would just do less things.)  We were up late with the baby, and up again at 4am for another feeding. I usually do the middle of the night feeding, but last night Kullervo could tell I was ridiculously tired, so he fed the baby instead.

Kullervo and I both got up at 7 and did the usual divide and conquer of crazy mornings.  We managed to get everybody dressed and fed, the bike loaded in the van, the lunch packed for the one who needed it, water bottles filled, coffee poured, and out the door in time.  And we did it without fighting.

It wasn’t until I’d dropped Oliver off and a dear friend texted me to tell me happy anniversary that I realized.  Sixteen years.  I have been married for sixteen years.  Considering that I still sort of feel like a 17 year old most of the time, that’s an awful lot of married life.

And it seems fitting that, with the crazy, hectic, overscheduled life we lead, that the day would sneak in and take the backseat.  Like, that is the part of the love story—the part where the love story just is.  We just live into it.  It’s normal, we take it for granted, we live it, and when we realize the beauty of it, it is all the more special for how truly ordinary it is.

One day, the kids will have moved out, the dog and cats will have passed on, our house that currently feels too small will feel much too large for our needs.  I’ll be able to sit on the porch and read a book while I drink my coffee without anybody asking me for a snack.  At the end of the workday, we will look at each other and decide if we want to go see a movie and not need to do any advance planning. We’ll just be able to go.  One day, we will eagerly anticipate the special things we will plan for each other to celebrate our wedding anniversary.

Today, we made it out the door without arguing.  Kullervo buckled Fitz in the car, held open the car door for me, and gave me a kiss before I dashed off for a day of driving kids around.

Sixteen years, and that is probably the best thing I could have gotten—a crazy morning with my beloved, dancing the choreographed logistics of raising five little ones.  Maybe it doesn’t seem romantic.  Maybe it isn’t exciting.  But for me, the pragmatic nature of being married to a man who will make the coffee and the breakfast while I make the lunches and change the diapers while I prepare the formula and water bottles is pretty damned romantic.

All The Feelings

So, everything has changed.  Everything got real yesterday.

We started the process to become foster parents on September 9, 2015.  That’s AGES ago.  We did an information session that day, and followed it up with 30 hours of training.  Then we did the background checks, roped a couple of friends in to be our backups and got their background checks done, fingerprints, and the home study.  The home study involved the fire department coming to our house (and deciding our windows were not to code), the health department coming out (and deciding that our house was mostly okay, with some minor, easy changes), and multiple visits with a social worker to talk about Kullervo’s and my history and motivations and all the things (read: free therapy).  Due to our neighborhood being a national historic neighborhood, our windows were ultimately allowed as an exception.

Finally, we found out at the beginning of February 2017 that we were approved.  We got our certificate that said that we were official foster parents.  I was out of town on a Christian middle school retreat, and I got the text from Kullervo, and I just cried and cried.

And then, nothing.

We were supposed to hear from our social worker at some point, but paperwork moves slowly through the governmental system.  We figured that it was all God’s timing, and when we had our entire lives all put together with a bow on top (read: the house was clean), we’d call someone and find out if we had fallen through the cracks.

But then yesterday happened.  Yesterday, I got the call.  The first call.  There was a little girl who needed a placement that day, if they could find her, if her father hadn’t run off with her.  Her story is not mine to tell, and we weren’t sure of all the details anyway.  But she was 14 months old and she needed a place to go.

We said yes.  We prayed first, but of course we said yes.

Social services found her, and at 7:30 last night, she arrived.  Just a sweet little girl with a diaper bag.  Her father had packed what he could, but said they didn’t really have food.  There were diapers, baby wipes, and some too-small clothes.  And a little girl who attaches really easily, especially to women.

She didn’t cry.  She whimpered a bit when Kullervo picked her up, but didn’t cry.  All night.  I woke up this morning and rushed to where she was in case she was dead.  She wasn’t; she was asleep.

We loved her.  She was so lovely, so sweet, so beautiful, that we hoped we’d get to keep her, but this morning they identified a family member who could take her in.  So 18 hours after we welcomed her, we kissed her goodbye.  With prayers and hopes and all the feelings.

My little boys didn’t understand.  Neither did my mama heart, but my mama heart doesn’t win this one.  Part of this job, part of this calling, is the goodbye.  It’s all the feelings, over and over, and my prayer, from the very beginning, has been that God would give me a heart big enough for this.  Big enough to love the children who had been hurt.  To love the parents who hurt them.  To love in spite of the brokenness.  To be a safe place, full of love and the Holy Ghost.

So, tonight is a normal night.  No new baby, nothing out of the ordinary.

But, yet, everything has changed.  Because this is real now.

The Morning After

We are not a Christian nation, but we sure like to say we are.

Somehow, so many people in our country have confused Christianity with Republicanism.

Somehow, the words of Jesus about how we treat our neighbor have translated as the least important words to follow, even though He sort of said they’re a big deal–one of the biggest deals.

Somehow, the message of grace comes after the message of repentance when we talk to people, even though Jesus always showed grace first.

This morning, I woke up with a heavy heart and a sense of dread.  I’m not a political guru.  Like, at all.  I don’t closely follow most of the issues or most of the stances.  I find overwhelming all of the moving parts of how the country runs, the competing values and interests and needs and the right way to allocate the limited resources, and all of the nonsense that gets added to bills and measures in order to pass them.  There is a stunning lack of clarity about how things get done, and I know I’m not the only one who feels that way.  But I’ve heard some the things that Donald Trump has said, and I just don’t understand how America got here.

Our Father God has a plan for all of this.  He is sovereign over all and that brings me comfort.  But the biggest response to this, as a Christian, needs to be repentance.  We have work to do, sisters and brothers in Christ.  We, the church, need to do better.

If you are a Christian, and you voted for Donald Trump, I would like answers.  Why did you vote for him? How are none of these things priorities?  How will you respond?

When you see you black and brown neighbors and friends, after they are stopped and frisked, after they are the victims of police brutality that is endorsed by the President of your nation, how will you look them in the eye and tell them that you loved them as yourself?

When you see the millions–MILLIONS—of women who came forward and shared their sexual assault stories after Donald Trump bragged about his own compulsion to grab women, and then pooh-poohed his comments as just locker room talk, how will you look them in the eye and tell them you seek justice for the oppressed?

When I first heard that audio of Trump, I was awake all night.  I lay in bed, reliving and re-experiencing multiple sexual assaults.  I wound up getting up and trying to write down all that I could remember just so that I could maybe get some sleep.  I was shocked by how much I remember, and I was also shocked by how much I can’t remember.  In case you’re wondering, I only ever tried to report one of these incidents, and I was not believed.  I am not the only woman for whom this is the case.  And that’s only counting the ‘big’ ones, and not the regular occurrences of men smacking my behind, grabbing onto me and refusing to let go, making vulgar comments, or otherwise making me feel like an object instead of like another human being.

When you talk to your daughters and your sisters, how will you explain how an overly qualified woman had a chance to be the first President of the United States—seriously, the best resume for the job that a person could have, ever—and the man without any experience was chosen instead?  (Note that this also happened after this same political party made it very clear that the future first black President was ‘unqualified’ because of his lack of resume.)  How will you look them in the eye and tell them that you love justice?

When you see your Muslim neighbors, how will you apologize for the fear that they feel?  How will you avoid oppressing the sojourners among us?  Remember that you know the heart of the sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.

When you see your brown friends, whose racial identity isn’t obvious, and as such experience the fear of getting pulled over by the police or questioned at an airport or otherwise harassed because of their lack of whiteness, how will you explain to them that it’s okay?  When you see people whose religion is different from yours being persecuted by authority figures solely because of their religion, how will you demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit?  Can you tell me how I explain to my eight year old daughter that, no, even if Donald Trump insisted he would build a wall to keep Mexicans out of the country, he will not be doing that?

When you see your LGBT neighbor, how will you look into their eye?  How much fear and dread will you see there?  How will you help to maintain the rights of the afflicted?

When you see a POW, or a disabled person, do you think the things that our future President said to and about them is kind and loving?

I just don’t understand what politics you, Christian Donald Trump voter, put before the well-being and safety of these, your neighbors, sisters, and brothers.  Please, explain it to me, because I want to understand. 

Do you really think that God is more concerned with fiscal policy and Supreme Court justices than how we treat our fellow citizens on Earth?

We Christians have work to do.  We need to repent and turn back to the God who loves everyone.  He doesn’t just love everyone in a general sense of the world, he loves every. individual. person.  He loves them right now, in who they are today.  He loves them even if they’re brown.  Even if they’re Muslim.  Even if they are unsure of their sexual or gender identity.  Even if they have hearts full of hate and vitriol.  God even loves you, Christian Donald Trump voter (and maybe I need to do better at remembering that myself, in my anger and hurt and confusion).

We Christians need to remember that the way out of the evil we see on earth isn’t through government mandates or political opinions.  It isn’t through legislating sexuality or women’s reproductive issues.  It isn’t through condemning people with different viewpoints than us.  We overcome the evil on earth by loving first.  By loving people in a radical, crazy way that Jesus loves us.

So, to my black, brown, LGBT, Muslim friends—I love you.  And I am here for you and I am sorry that hatred and fear of difference seems to have won out over justice.  Our home will always be safe for you, and we will do everything in our power to stand beside you and keep you safe.

To my Trump-voting friends—I love you.  And I am sorry for the anger in my heart towards you.  I hope to have conversations and understand and help work towards the change and the life that Jesus called us to.

So, please-contact me! Christian Donald Trump voters—please help me understand why and how you could have voted this way.  Because I can’t get there myself, and my heart is so sad today.  But I will listen and I will hear you and I will try to understand.  And if I can’t understand, I will love you anyway.

Christians, let’s love harder and better and more completely.  The only way, going forward, that I can see right now is to pray and to love and to love some more.  Every single person.

This Week, It Hurts

Most of the time, it doesn’t hurt.

It’s been four years, and the life we have here now is good.  Like, we are right where we are supposed to be, and knowing that and feeling that is so reassuring.

But this week, four years after we drove away, leaving still hurts.

This week, texting my best buddy from Chicago just doesn’t feel like enough.

This week, after the Cubs’ World Series win, I think about taking Hazel to her first ball game at Wrigley Field.

This week, wearing my I ❤ Chicago shirt, I noticed that I’ve washed it so many times that the heart has worn partially off, so it looks like a broken heart.

This week, as I made pizza for my kids to eat, I could almost smell the pizza place on our block where Kullervo and I ate so many dinners.  But I can’t quite remember it anymore.

Don’t get me wrong–Chicago wasn’t perfect. Finding a parking spot on (or near) our street was sometimes impossible and digging out of the snow in the winter was an enormous effort.

I became a stay at home mom in Chicago, and the transition from working to being home was really difficult.  Figuring out how to make friends when I didn’t have the daily convenience of adult conversation across the desk from me was like moving across the country partway through my freshman year of high school.  All the awkward.  All the insecurity.  And no idea how to start over.  Figuring out how to be at home with my kids and actually feel like I’d accomplished anything and also not resent my children was also difficult.

five

Living the dream in Chicago

But I made friends.  It was actually the first time in my life that I had adult friends who were not my coworkers—they were my friends because they wanted to be, not because they were stuck looking at my face all day.  We also learned how to be neighbors—what that could look like.  My kids would play outside in the afternoon, and eventually all the kids on the block would join.  It was the magical age before we were beholden to sports and activities every day, so our only constraints in the afternoons were dinner and bedtime.  And my neighbors were awesome.  There was so much laughter, so much annoyance, so much living life together while our kids grew up.  I was sure that we would all grow old and move to an old folks’ community where we’d sit out on our porches in the evening, drinking and complaining about our good-fer-nothin’ children who don’t come visit.

And then, in what seemed like it should be the middle of all the magic of living in Chicago, it ended.  Kullervo got a job offer in Baltimore.  We packed the house.  We said goodbye.  We drove away.  Kullervo drove our moving truck; I drove the minivan with the kids.  I am fairly certain I cried the entire drive.  We left on November 3; we arrived at our apartment November 5.

door

The door to our Baltimore apartment.

Oliver started school, but I had to push him onto the school bus every day; Hazel stayed home and fell into a deep depression (which is super sad on four year old Hazel).  I wasn’t much help for her—I was too busy being sad all the time myself.  We cried together.  We watched a lot of My Little Pony, and when I would turn it off, she would just sit on a chair and stare at the blank television.  I tried to unpack into our apartment, but I didn’t have the strength to tough it out.  We had no drawers in our tiny kitchen, which only showed how awful this new place was going to be, forever.

At the time, the only saving grace for Hazel and me were the deer.  Our apartment complex faced into the woods, and we had huge windows to look out and see all kinds of nature.  It was beautiful.  She was certain that they were actually reindeer, and not just any old reindeer, but Santa’s reindeer.

deer

The view from our apartment…

I couldn’t eat—my go-to unhealthy coping mechanism.  I joined a gym and made tentative steps towards familiarity and friendship.  We found a gymnastics place for Hazel to take a class.  We looked at every house on the market in our price range and out of it and fired multiple real estate agents for either insulting us or not getting us, until we found a woman who guided us to our neighborhood because we were looking to recreate that neighborhoody feel we were missing so much.  We bought a house, and then found out that we were pregnant (so maybe the three-bedroom was too small… too late.)

moving

Moving into our new home

Nowadays, I know that we are right where we need to be, and my life here has become so full—of good times, good memories, good people.  This is home, and I don’t want to leave—I cannot imagine starting over all over again, again.  We have a new magical existence we get to live in, and I would not change it or go back.

But this week… this week, I’m missing Chicago fiercely, and being here in Baltimore hurts like I left yesterday.

Ink for 15

According to the lists I found on the Internet, on the 15th wedding anniversary the gift should either be watches or crystal.  I have a works-well-enough-for-me watch and no desire to own any crystal.  Like, ever.  So Kullervo and I decided that we would forgo tradition and go for ink instead.  While he has a handful of tattoos, this would be my first, so I wanted to make sure it was just right.

Our next decision involved figuring out what the tattoo should be.  What would represent us–fifteen years of us–with all of our inside jokes and arguments and values?  On a long road trip home from Tennessee, we made a list.  We wrote down all the things that we could think of that described Kullervo, and me, and us, looking for something to jump out at us.

Nothing did.  Or, rather, nothing did in such a way as to really capture who we are in a form that would translate to skin.

Driving down the Interstate, we grew quiet.  The radio was playing, the kids were reading, and we were lost in our own thoughts.

Some time later, Kullervo said that he might have an idea.  At the same moment, I thought that maybe I did as well.

He wanted me to listen to something, and cued up a YouTube video for me to listen to.

While we waited through the ad at the beginning, I butted in, “What about a mason jar?”

His video came through, and we listened to this together.

This is a part of a series called “For the Life of the World” and is really a fantastic video series.  And in this chapter about love, hipster Adam and hipster Eve say yes to each other.  To sacrifice and to pouring themselves out into the world, into children, into messiness and brokenness.  They say yes to each other.

As it happens, when Kullervo and I got married in the Mormon temple, we didn’t say ‘I do’… we said ‘yes.’

And right then, we both knew that our tattoo had to say yes.

But what about the mason jar?  Why that?

We only drink out of mason jars.  Water, chocolate milk (don’t judge), beer, wine… we serve it in a mason jar.

And if you know us, you might know that we have intentionally structured our life in such a way as to follow Jesus Christ as best as we can.  And one of the ways that we really try to radically live that out is through hospitality.  What’s radical about hospitality?  After all, it sounds like the same kind of radical that geometry homework is.  Or being told that your talent is that you’re a compassionate person.  It sort of sounds boring.

But here’s the thing.  You can come to our house.  It will be messy, it will be chaotic, but you are welcome here.    At midnight, you can show up at our door without notice, and we will bring you in and feed you and love you and not resent it even one bit.  More on that here:

Not only that, but a few years ago, we started canning our extra food and making our own jam.  We grow some food, we preserve it, and when we pop open a jar of tomatoes to toss into our spaghetti sauce, we wash the glass and it joins the other glasses.  And when we have too many glasses, we realize it’s time to start canning again.  There is something really neat about the ebb and flow of having, and then pouring what we have out for the sustenance of our family, and then taking what’s left and pouring into it for the short term needs of hydration.  Our mason jars are work horses.

For us, the mason jar represents following Jesus and living into the gifts He provides and the ways we can use those gifts to provide for others.  It represents our marriage because we intentionally live into that, with all of the messiness and sacrifice that it brings.

So, sitting in the car that day, we realized we’d both just had the right idea.  And we realized that a mason jar, which usually has the brand name written on the side, could say Yes instead.  All of a sudden, we had our tattoo.

*Note:  I asked Kullervo what to say when people ask what the tattoos mean, because this is sort of a long-winded explanation.  His response?

“Just say that it’s some hipster shit.”

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Dinner at a hipster restaurant post-tattoo.