May is Foster Care Awareness Month and I love a good awareness month, so I popped over here to write about some things that have been on my mind the last few weeks. We recently became foster parents again, having finalized our first adoption from foster care last fall. People are often interested in what we do, why we do it, how it works, and perhaps one day soon I’ll get into all of that here, but for now I wanted to discuss some things that come up a lot in our daily lives as foster parents. People often want to know how they can be supportive of our family, and honestly, more than clothes or food (maybe not more than babysitting, we’d love babysitting), I want people to be more conscious about how they interact with us and other families in our situation. So today, I’m addressing a few of those problem areas.
Why we don’t talk about our foster kids’ stories
A while back a friend posted one of those listicles about what NOT to say to fostering and adoptive families. As helpful as the article was for her, she struggled with hopelessness thinking she would never be allowed to say (or ask) anything. She asked several of us, “Is there a polite way to ask about your family?”
My advice was to first, check your entitlement to the family’s story. The thought that I’m entitled to an explanation of someone else’s family is often a mark of personal privilege, and an indication that I could be treating these folks more like an exhibit than like people.Empathy is key here. Would you, upon meeting a stranger or even an acquaintance, disclose all of your family’s business? The sister in rehab? The mom dealing with mental illness? The dad in and out of jail? Perhaps you are an open person, but chances are you’re not going to tell tales about your family without their permission. Well, neither will I, and my kids are too little to give their permission. In fact, they are too little to know the scope of their backgrounds. Total strangers definitely don’t get to learn that from me before they do.
Kids come into foster care because they have been neglected or abused. They have been traumatized in some way and now a whole team of strangers has taken over their lives, hopefully for the better. Those strangers, lawyers, social workers, parents, doctors, counselors, all know the story. Almost all of us are bound in some way to confidentiality about these children and their families.
There are need-to-know zones I navigate as a foster parent. Only a couple of close confidants know anything about our kids’ background (and those are my “if I die and need someone to pass this historical knowledge on because I know you’re a fixture in my kids’ lives” folks). And even they don’t know everything. For what it’s worth, we don’t either. We know what we’ve been given.
If it’s a close friend or someone we’ll be regularly interacting with, I’m happy to respond to some questions as long as that zooing motivation is checked. Treading lightly here looks like, “I know you have to protect your child’s privacy, but I’m trying to understand better. Can I ask you something? Feel free to shut me down if it’s too much/inappropriate/you don’t want to discuss it.” If you have to ask, and again, check yourself before you do, take the pressure off the family to answer. We like to educate, but let us do it on terms that are best for us and our kids.
Why I might be “rude” to strangers or even friends who get weird about my transracial family
I don’t want to be rude. It’s not fun. I’m a rowdy person behind a computer screen but in real life I want folks to like me as much as the next person does. But, there are realities we’re dealing with as a “conspicuous” family in a segregated culture and we are required, as parents, to protect, advocate for, and teach our children about the world.
We used to be a white family of four. When we starting fostering our son (who is Asian) we got lots of ridiculous comments that I snarked back at: “He speaks good English” FOR A ONE YEAR OLD, YEAH HE DOES. In a store, “where did you get him?” AISLE 5. “I bet he’s well-behaved.” WHY DO YOU THINK SO? We know other folks who have been asked how much a kid cost. There’s no gif for this level of intrusion and stupidity. Oh wait…Now that we’re fostering our black daughter, we have white folks asking us all kinds of questions about skin and hair care. Seriously white people, on this and so much more, Google is your friend. You can ask Google anything you want and it’s just between you and the NSA.
Even more invasive, I now regularly have to fend off white ladies who want to touch her hair. And I mean, petting her and droning on about how surprised they are it’s soft, or waxing nostalgic about that time they touched their black friend’s hair.White folks’ curiosity about black hair is incredibly loaded with historical and cultural significance, and if you don’t know what those significances are, again, GOOGLE. I’ve indulged a few questions I probably shouldn’t have out of shock, but I’m quickly becoming accustomed to these situations and my tolerance for them has run out. I no longer care if you are family, friend, or foe: our daughter isn’t going to be your all-access-pass to blackness. Don’t I want people to know about fostering & transracial adoption? Why won’t I teach you?!
I do. I am. I will. But not at the expense of my kids. Growing up as a kid with rheumatoid arthritis, I know a little about what it’s like to have to deal with this kind of uninvited attention. Race and disability aren’t the same thing at all, and the invisibility of my disability affords me many privileges in addition to the ones I get for whiteness. Still, I’ve been that kid whose mom has to decide whether to educate someone or put them in their place, whether to confide in or confront.
As tricky as it is for the adult, it’s hellish for a kid who has zero power and is at the mercy of grown-ups. Sometimes my mom confided or educated and I was embarrassed by the details and the helplessness of not only having the disability but having it named and described without my permission. Sometimes I was embarrassed by the confrontation. I wanted the invisible to stay that way to the ignoramus in front of us. Most of the time, though, I knew my mom would rip the world apart to get me what I needed. I felt loved and safe watching her do her best to have my back.
I can’t give my kids intact birth families, and I can’t give them the just world they deserve, but I can have their backs. And if that kind of loyalty offends a few people along the way, I think I can live with it.
I’ve been away from writing these last few months because we have a newborn foster baby living with us. She came to us on her third day of life outside the womb, and managing her care and adjusting to life as a mother of four has been all-consuming. Since this is a space where I talk a little about life as a mom, I thought I’d share with you, dear readers, what my half-awake blogging hiatus has been like. I’m not making any promises about my return to more consistent blogging/writing because I’m giving myself space to live and sleep and trying to focus that internal pressure to accomplish on laundry (Sweet Lord, THE LAUNDRY overfloweth).
I’ve been snatching naps throughout the day and watching a lot of Netflix. Social media is pretty boring in the middle of the night, so when I get lonely or sleepy or think too much, I google.
Google searches at approximately 3:40 AM when I am feeding a newborn
This week, our 8-year-old will be attending his first lock-in at church. I am in disbelief that he is old enough for such an affair, but he will be there with his dad and he is incredibly excited. We got an email detailing the schedule of events at this shindig and the word “pizza” appears repeatedly in the list. Sounds like a party to me!
Perhaps the most looked-forward-to element of the night is a church-wide Nerf gun chase. Tonight we drove out to Target (of course) to purchase the boy’s first Nerf gun. I’m not a fan of guns and we live in a town house that’s full to the brim, so it never made sense to us to load up on Nerf weapons like many of our friends have. I didn’t want him to miss out at the lock-in, so we caved and got one.
When we got to the artillery aisle, the choices were overwhelming. Multi-chamber. Crossbows. Holsters. There were giant guns that could be taken apart to make smaller guns. Everything cost roughly fifty dollars. Pretty quickly, a theme emerged among the packaging…
I pointed this out to my husband and children. “The packages have only guys. That’s dumb. They’re all white, too. Geez. AMERICA.” They listened for a second and then went back to shopping.
I thought about the men who brought loaded guns into the toy section at a Target last year. I remembered being horrified to the point that I boycotted the store until they made a public stand against that kind of display.
Then my mind flashed to John Crawford who held a toy weapon in a Wal-Mart and was killed by police for it.
I was ready to get the heck out of there, but we still had a task ahead. “Which kind do you want? How about this one?” I asked my son, pointing at a reasonably-priced model. “I want a big one,” he responded. Of course you do. I found myself getting sucked into that self-defense armament argument for a moment. I thought about the kids who would be coming for him at this thing. Kids who were well-rehearsed in fast reloading and chasing their cowering siblings around furniture. I know some of these kids. They are perfectly nice children who own holsters and many of them got multi-chambered Nerf guns for Christmas. The kids have to label their bullets, so they’re being more responsible than Congress, right? “They’re just kids playing,” I tell myself to lighten up.
I feel my heart rush to back to Tamir Rice, throwing a snowball, holding his toy gun, not knowing the cops are on the way. Not knowing that as a child, he will be seen as a threat.
It felt like the air has been sucked out of the store. I looked back at my family and came back to the moment. I didn’t really want my boy to be a part of this. None of it felt right. Rehearsing violence in a country where inflicting violence is practically a birthright for some and a perpetual nightmare for others? How does it honor God to play at this? It doesn’t.
I decide, once again, I’m over-thinking it. After all, they are playing other games, too. Like dodgeball. This whole thing was shaping up to be a festival of social Darwinism. I didn’t mind dodgeball too much as a kid because it was widely known I was an arthritic. I could survive until the final rounds based on pity alone. My son doesn’t have any of those physical issues, he can keep up. But he is sensitive to situations where he feels ganged-up-on and situations where other people are being ganged-up-on (the latter is one of my favorite things about my kid). I recalled how horrible he was at laser tag this summer: how quickly he ran right into enemy fire and how oblivious he was to those out to get him. He had a ball playing, but he was crestfallen when the score sheets came out.
While we live in the age of everyone-gets-a-trophy sports, sometimes it feels like childhood has become this decade-long competition of who has a phone and who doesn’t, who is better on Xbox, who comes out on top. It’s rare to see children encouraged to play cooperative games, though they are widely available if you know where to look. It seemed counter intuitive to be staging a play war at church. When did everything get so militant? Couldn’t we re-enact Jesus telling Peter to put his sword away? Takers?
At least this elementary-age group wasn’t revisiting the middle-schoolers’ Hunger Games theme from New Years’ Eve.
My son stood in the aisle unsure of which weapon to choose. I was willing to buy him something for this lock-in, but I wasn’t excited to be succumbing to this kind of play. My offer to make him a conscientious objector vest was rejected as soon as I explained to him what it was.
I couldn’t blame him. I’m not the most peace-loving person myself. I slayed at laser tag. If I was planning things, we’d probably follow that Peter scene with Jael stabbing Sisera in the head with a stake.
The thing about parenting is it tends to hold a lens up to what we do as people and it makes us keenly aware of what we are passing on to our children. Everything we do teaches. It’s a terrifying responsibility. Sometimes we cave to culture. Other times we resist. In this situation, I am making allowances. Some may think it’s capitulation, many may think I’m being too analytical about this. I never want to stop questioning choices that seem to be the default, especially at church. I realize as an evangelical, this gun culture is my bedfellow. If I were in a Quaker church, things might be different for us. This is our community and we have to navigate this context and try to interrupt the status quo where we can.
Still, every day we do this and make these kinds of compromises, I ask myself if I am doing right by my kids. If I tell them the truth about the world we live in and how God would have us move through it, can I give them what they need to live a courageous contrast? Am I actively modeling these convictions or am I self-satisfied by my righteous rant in the Nerf aisle at Target? I’d like to be tougher as a mother and not be so unsettled by these questions, but as a person, I never want to be hardened about violence.
After all, none of us are bulletproof.
The one word challenge. Choose a word to live by for the year and, well, live by it.
Do you have any idea how many words there are in the English language? Me, neither, but I can think of at least twenty-three that I love and would like to be true of me in 2015 (or ever). I’ve been mulling it and praying about it for a few days, and I’ve finally landed on one that I think will be sufficient for encouraging me and kicking my tail. But I’m scared to put it in writing.
Oh, GAH, I might have to live up to it if I do. It’s the monster at the end of this post, and I’m warning myself even in this very paragraph not to say it or write it out.
I really am going to tell you the word, but it seems fitting to give you a short bit of background. You see, for years people have told me that I’m bold. Some say too bold, and that criticism has, on many occasions, sent me into a hole where I hush up and try not to bother anyone to keep the peace. Then I get all angsty about how easily persuaded I am to hide my light under a bushel, so I emerge from my hole, inevitably say or do something “too bold” again, and back into the loop I go.
Other people in my life say I’m bold, but they mean it in a complimentary way. “I could never do what you do,” they say. “You’re just so confident.” I take such things as they are intended, but in my head the emphasis is on “con.” I know any measure of confidence I have is a good bluff. Like how no matter what a British person says, to me, it sounds brilliant. It could be the biggest lie in the world, but because it comes with the accent, I’m sure it’s sage wisdom.
I am a reasonably intelligent person with an abundance of conviction, mind you, and people often mistake being convinced as being confident. But confident, I am not. I long to be seen and heard, but I cower in the wings inventing excuses why I should remain the over-rehearsed understudy.
In light of this, I considered making my one word “confident,” but it seemed too close to a motivational poster for me. Many of these one-word-words do. I feel like a cheeseball for even taking this challenge on for 2015. I feel like a cheeseball for blogging about it. This is one of those things that “highly effective” people do: goal-setting. I am not highly effective. Don’t get me wrong, I am amazing at setting goals. I am a professional beginner. I have the stash highly effective people need to start anything: notebooks, new pens, calendars, maybe some post-it flags. Office supplies are my jam. I am also a really good outliner, if you ever need an outline.
The other issue I had with “confidence” was that every time I let it take a lap around my brain, it went something like this:
That pretty much did it in for “confidence.” What I really wanted though, was a word that expressed courage. But not “courage,” because, again, the posters.
I’ve been thinking about words and writing and how I could possibly let one word set the tone for a whole year of living. The endeavor overwhelmed, and I was pretty sure this one-word thing was supposed to be clarifying and not befuddling. So last night I gave up on this whole one-word business and went to the theater. I put all of it out of my mind entirely.
I saw a staged production of C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. Like many wonderful projects, it is a book I’ve whole-heartedly started dozens of times, but never finished. The company could not possibly cover the entire book, so they selected vignettes from the work and strung them together within the frame of the longer story. I was nailed to the wall by this dramatized encounter between an artist (Ghost) on the verge of entering heaven and her spiritual guide (Spirit):
Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him. For it doesn’t stop at being interested in paint, you know. They sink lower–become interested in their own personalities and then in nothing but their own reputations.’
‘I don’t think I’m much troubled in that way,’ said the Ghost stiffly.
‘That’s excellent,’ said the Spirit. ‘Not many of us had quite got over it when we first arrived. But if there is any of that inflammation left it will be cured when you come to the fountain.’
‘What fountain’s that?’
‘It is up there in the mountains,’ said the Spirit. ‘Very cold and clear, between two green hills. A little like Lethe. When you have drunk of it you forget forever all proprietorship in your own works. You enjoy them just as if they were someone else’s: without pride and without modesty.’”
As a writer and as a woman, I’ve struggled between such poles: believing my voice and my opinions to be indispensable, and believing them to be rubbish. This vacillation is embarrassing to me because it’s vanity. It is double-mindedness. It is neurosis and preoccupation with self and reputation. I yearn for the kind of self-forgetfulness that will allow me to do what God would have me do without fear or pride. I want to be authentically fallible; confident I can approach the throne of grace and head back out into world undaunted. I don’t want to worry that I’ll be found wanting or found out. I want to be fearless.
So this year, I’m making 2015 “fearless.”
It’s the scariest, most intimidating thing I could think of to do, and I think that means it’s the right fit, even if I don’t have a British person to sign off on it. Oh, wait…
Last week, I asked my Bible study group for prayer in diagnosing some problems I’ve been having with my neck and shoulder. In the last seven days, I’ve seen two orthopedists on the issues. One ordered an MRI. The other gave me an enormous injection of cortisone. The results of both are still pending.
Today as I was leaving the group, one of the women in my group asked me how I was doing and when I replied, she offered to “pray for healing.” My friend was sincere and I took her remark as the compassionate act of a friend. Perhaps it is my own cynicism that taking such an offer requires effort and grace on my part, but it does. You see, I have had a number of experiences in communities of faith that have been less compassionate, less sincere. And this is one of the reasons why when it comes to my rheumatoid arthritis (while seemingly a no-brainer prayer request) I am reluctant to add it to the conversation. I do pray about my RA quite often. I have come to embrace it as a perpetual prayer that involves me complaining, hoping, expecting, but rarely ever do I ask for healing.
I have prayed many prayers for successful IV sticks, uncomplicated surgical recoveries, for humor and grace, and a little less nausea. But I cannot recall a time when I have asked God to eliminate my RA. When I read stories of healings in Scripture or hear of contemporary disabled people healed through miraculous means, my heart is glad. Yet I’m keenly aware that there were many in Jesus and the apostles’ days and there are many now who are left unhealed. I count myself in their number.
My attitude on this has been taken by some in my faith community to mean I lack the faith to ask God for a miracle. This is entirely possible, but it is not why I refrain from asking. These folks often devote themselves to renewed prayer on my behalf. I welcome all the prayer I can get! Still, I will not join their fervor. It’s not an easy thing to say: I won’t pray to be healed. It feels rude. I’m used to accommodating the abled. I’ve been giving myself manicures since I was ten to keep people from feeling awkward about staring at my hands.
If I were to agree with “the faithful” praying for my total healing in those moments, it would feel like a waste of what I know to be true about God and about myself. For me, my illness and struggles are not an affront to my faith. Unlike the strength of my bones, my belief in the kindness and wisdom of God does not wear out easily.
Catholic writer Nancy Mairs once wrote of her own struggles with multiple sclerosis:
…if a cure were found, would I take it? In a minute. I may be a cripple, but I’m only occasionally a loony and never a saint. Anyway, in my brand of theology God doesn’t give out bonus points for a limp. I’d take a cure; I just don’t need one. A friend who also has MS startled me once by asking, ‘Do you ever say to yourself, Why me, Lord?’ ‘No, Michael, I don’t,’ I told him, ‘because whenever I try, the only response I can think of is, ‘Why not?’ If I could make a cosmic deal, who would I put in my place? What in my life would I give up in exchange for sound limbs and a thrilling rush of energy? No one. Nothing. I might as well do the job myself. Now that I am getting used to it.
As a younger person, I had my share of “why me?” moments. Most of them were more “woe is me!” moments, but reasonable bouts of self-pity are a part of grieving the loss of one’s health (even when your health has been compromised your entire life). Like Mairs wrote, this is something I’m constantly learning to live with, and it has shaped who I am in many ways.
Recently, I had a conversation with an atheist friend of my husband who, in an effort to demonstrate the absence of God, began to use disability in children as evidence of the arbitrary cruelty of nature. While I could offer this man few reasons why such suffering would exist, I told him that these pains, like mine, would be a heavy charge to levy against a supposedly-good God, indeed. My faith, however, tells the story of an omnipotent God who subjected His boundless deity to human form in the person of Jesus Christ, who is the image of the God-head bodily. The God-man got hungry, grew tired, lost sleep, felt pain, just as any human would. Not only that, He endured incredible, utterly unjust pain and finally, death on a cross. My God knows what disability is because in His love, He took on limitations and suffering so He might through incarnation, intimately know us and meet us in our bodies.
In her book, Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, Nancy L. Eisland writes:
The coming of Emmanuel was understood by the early church in terms of death and resurrection. At the resurrection, the disciples understood the person Jesus for who he really was. Only through the lens of resurrection could they understand the meaning and significance of the life of Jesus on earth. In the resurrected Jesus Christ, they saw not the suffering servant for whom the last and most important word was tragedy and sin, but the disabled God who embodied both impaired hands and feet and pierced side and Imago Dei…Here is the resurrected Christ making good on the incarnational proclamation that God would be with us, embodied as we are, incorporating the fullness of human contingency and ordinary life into God…The disabled God is not only the One from heaven but the revelation of true personhood, underscoring the reality that full personhood is fully compatible with the experience of disability.
In a culture, even a church, where disability is viewed as a lacking, a deformity, a state of incompleteness to be endured, Eisland’s words are life-giving to me. I think this liberatory theology resonates with me because I do not want to see my body as broken (though the powers of this world do its damnedest to convince me otherwise). I do not want to wait for wholeness. Psalm 139 is about me, too. I am fearfully and wonderfully made. The Imago Dei is all over this.
Just last week, I heard a sermon in which the presenter spoke of his disabled child who would be healed in heaven. I understand his desire to see his child remade in his image. I have long held out the same hopes. In the scarred body of the resurrected Christ, I see no particular promise for my own physical transformation beyond a ‘glorified body’, the likes of which is minimally described in Scripture. But in that image of Jesus, raised from death to life, I see the hope of triumphant embodiment. Eisland pinpoints more imagery that addresses those of us with “invisible” illnesses:
The resurrected Jesus Christ in presenting impaired hands and feet and side to be touched by frightened friends alters the taboo of physical avoidance of disability and calls for followers to recognize their connection and equality at the point of Christ’s physical impairment. Christ’s disfigured side bears witness to the existence of ‘hidden’ disabilities, as well. Historically, interpretations of the pierced side of Jesus have emphasized the tragedy of innocent suffering. But understanding the internal damage wrought by hacking swords as part of God’s eternal existence necessitates a deromanticization of of interpretations of Christ’s impaired body and a recognition of the population of people who identify with Christ’s experience of disabilities, hidden and displayed, as part of our hidden history…Hence, disability not only does not contradict the human-divine integrity, it becomes a new model of wholeness and a symbol of solidarity.
Eisland goes on to assert that in the ritual of the Eucharist, the breaking of Christ’s body and the shedding of His blood, we can be reminded of the suffering of Christ, but also His physical embodiment and solidarity with the disabled. She calls for a reexamining of how communion is served and the physical requirements of the practice (“architectural barriers, ritual practices, demeaning body aesthetics, unreflective speech, and bodily reactions), so that disabled people have the freedom to take of the bread and cup without exclusion. I myself have struggled, even in informal churches where plates and cups are passed, to hold onto the heavy plates, or grasp a tiny cup. Churches would do well to consider how the home-bound, those with difficulty kneeling or approaching an altar, and others with disabilities could be better served during the practice.
I struggled to write this at first because I was concerned it would seem too skeptical or jarring. I couldn’t escape the gumption that Mia McKenzie’s tweets gave me this week:
You see, I don’t consider people offering to pray for me oppressive. I truly take that as a kindness. What is oppressive, however, is the constant pressure to recover, to get over it, to be healed. And, honestly, a lot of that burden comes from people who should be well-acquainted with suffering and quick to identify with the oppressed. Instead, the church asserts demands for us to be made completely able (read: less inconvenient, less time-consuming, more independent). The disabled remind me and everyone else I know that community, love, and mutuality is the calling on our lives. Yet everywhere I go, I am inundated with messages that God wants me to get it together. His Word has a magical spell for whatever ails me.
When I tell able-bodied people this, they often struggle to see it. If you find this hard to believe, feel free to hang out with me or any other disabled person for a while. Take a break from staring at us, and sit beside us staring back. Maybe together we will all have our prayers transformed by the disabled God we serve.
Our church is in the middle of a big evangelism push. Every now and then we evangelicals get worked up and reinvigorated to tell the world God’s story. These occasions can make us brave. They can also make us obnoxious. It’s a toss-up, really.
As I’ve been thinking about my own struggle to break the ice and share the Gospel with people, I’m reminded how much I need to hear the Gospel. We’re not supposed to speak just to hear ourselves talk. But the truth is, even as a person who has been following Christ for years, I need to be reminded. As the hymn says, “I love to tell the story. ‘Twill be my theme in glory.”
Jesus proclaimed this story Himself in Luke 4 is this:
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
The Gospel as I know tell it in my own vernacular is this: God loves us so much that He came as Jesus, taking on our form and flesh and He gave Himself over willingly to the violent powers of evil on this earth. He then raised Himself from the dead so that we might all have hope in this life, and in the life to come, that everything can be made good again. We have that promise in His Spirit who gives us the deep pleasure of His company on our journey.
This Gospel tells me Christ did the performing. I don’t have to pretend to be someone I’m not, and in letting go of those pretenses, I’m freed to be transformed into someone I’m not. Brennan Manning writes:
The Good News means we can stop lying to ourselves. The sweet sound of amazing grace saves us from the necessity of self- deception. It keeps us from denying that though Christ was victorious, the battle with lust, greed, and pride still rages within us. As a sinner who has been redeemed, I can acknowledge that I am often unloving, irritable, angry, and resentful with those closest to me. When I go to church I can leave my white hat at home and admit I have failed. God not only loves me as I am, but also knows me as I am. Because of this I don’t need to apply spiritual cosmetics to make myself presentable to Him. I can accept ownership of my poverty and powerlessness and neediness…
When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer. To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story, the light side and the dark. In admitting my shadow side I learn who I am and what God’s grace means. As Thomas Merton put it, “A saint is not someone who is good but who experiences the goodness of God.”
Even our fidelity is a gift, “If we but turn to God,” said St. Augustine, “that itself is a gift of God.”
This good news has saved my life. This news has given me hope when I’ve royally “boogered up” (as I say to my kids). It’s made me brave enough to, on occasion, risk my sanctimonious reputation for the sake of other people, or for His name. It’s given me the power to turn away from selfish instincts in moments of self-preservation and fear. It’s given me the courage to say “I’m sorry” and “Can I try again?” when I’m better at underlining my self-righteousness and walking away. It’s compelled me to see and know people I would have otherwise found inconvenient. It’s called me to do something with my life: to walk humbly, do justice, love mercy. This Gospel is more than a hot water bottle. For me, it is life.
As the late Rich Mullins sang in his song Creed: “I believe what I believe is what makes me what I am. I did not make it. No, it is making me.”
There are people who have radical stories of their encounters with Jesus. Many of them amaze me with the revolutions they’ve seen in their lives. I’ve seen a few myself, but mostly, it’s a unsteady walk in the same direction. Manning, again, describing his presentation of the Gospel in his book:
This book is not for the super-spiritual. It is not for muscular Christians who have made John Wayne and not Jesus their hero. It is not for academicians who would imprison Jesus in the ivory tower of exegesis. It is not for noisy, feel-good folks who manipulate Christianity into a naked appeal to emotion. It is not for hooded mystics who want magic in their religion. It is not for Alleluia Christians who live only on the mountaintop and have never visited the valley of desolation. It is not for the fearless and tearless. It is not for red-hot zealots who boast with the rich young ruler of the gospels: “All these commandments I have kept from my youth.” It is not for the complacent, hoisting over their shoulder a tote-bag of honors, diplomas and good works actually believing they have it made. It is not for legalists who would rather surrender control of their souls to rules than run the risk of living in union with Jesus….[this book] was written for the bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt-out. It is for the sorely burdened who are still shifting the heavy suitcase from one hand to the other. It is for the wobbly and weak-kneed who know they don’t have it altogether and are too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace. It is for inconsistent, unsteady disciples whose cheese is falling off their cracker. It is for poor, weak, sinful men and women with hereditary faults and limited talents. It is for earthen vessels who shuffle along on feet of clay. It is for the bent and the bruised who feel that their lives are a grave disappointment to God. It is for smart people who know they are stupid and honest disciples who admit they are scalawags.
Becoming something other than scalawags is a lifelong process. We need the God of this Gospel to save us from our own messes, to accompany and change us on the road, and we need it in that last breath to take us home. As an “evangelical,” I think we are far too stingy with this Gospel. We fuss and fidget about telling people “who don’t know Jesus” about it because we rarely tell anyone about it, much less one another.
So, if you’ve stayed with me this far, I’m inviting you to share the Gospel with me. And if you’re open, I’ll share it right back. My needs here are as big as yours. And I’m feeling pretty needy these days.
A while back, a friend of mine wrote her biography in 50 words. I felt challenged to do the same, so I spent some time with God over it. God bringing me to a new place of self-acceptance. (Oprah said that might happen in my forties, so HA! I’m early.) This is me, quoting me:
Born and born again in North Carolina. Given a loud mouth, limber mind and stiff limbs. Had a lot of book-learning. Mothering a few kids (mine and other people’s). Occasionally employed, always underpaid. Writes a little. Talks a lot. Almost halfway home.
That’s my offering. And by His grace, He makes it more than enough.
A couple of weeks ago, we adopted our foster son: the boy formerly known as Batman. He made his social media debut and we officially became a court-ordained family.
We get a lot of questions about foster parenting. It makes sense that people would be curious about the process. Several years ago, most of what I knew about foster care and adoption was based on 80’s television.
As much as I loved those stories growing up, one can’t base her life on sitcoms (though I try so hard).
Most of the questions we get are loaded with misconceptions. I’ve toyed with the idea of addressing those foster care FAQs as a blog series, but there are so many mom/parent blogs about adoption, I’ve been reluctant to get into it. So for the last few years, I’ve avoided blogging about life as a foster parent and instead sat myself down in front of adoptees and listened.
This is not easy to do. Adoptees have amazing things to say. A lot of it is hard to hear, particularly if you’re coming to the audience with a “save ALL the babieeeeees!!” attitude. It’s difficult to check that rescuer attitude when so much of the recruitment materials for foster care and adoption emphasize the number of children living in unsafe situations.
I see those numbers and I want to fix it. I want to rescue all those kids. But it doesn’t work like that. There are two primary ideas I’ve been rehearsing as a foster parent since we first went through training, and they still resonate with me now (and of course, I’m tying them to titles of Tina Turner songs because I can’t help myself).
We don’t need another hero.
As we learned in our county-based training, the process is about finding families for children, not children for families. Coming to adoption or foster care with a savior mentality opens wide the potential for all kinds of ethical problems. It also places unrealistic expectations of gratitude upon children who deserve basic human rights.
When we come to foster care or adoption looking for a kid to fit our lifestyle, we’re already placing our needs or desires ahead of the child’s. There will be times when the system, agencies entrusted with meeting the needs of the foster child, will fail the child, and we will need to be their advocates. We will need to bend our lives and our families around the needs of a hurting child, lest we continue to hurt them. This takes effort, personal sacrifice, and a community of support. Going in, you may think you have a supportive community and the right motives, but in ways that differ from other forms of parenting, your motives will be tested. Your loyalties will be tested. If you go into it looking to add a kid and stir, you’re already doing it wrong. Your family as it exists before you foster or adopt will need to be flexible and open to (sometimes intense) adjustment in service to the needs of the foster or adoptive child.
Having birthed two children before we became foster parents, I can say I’ve had many of the same doubts and fears that I had as a new birth parent. You come home from the hospital and you say, “What have I done?? Why did they just let me take this baby home?! I am incompetent to do any of this!!” I’ve had those moments as a foster/adoptive parent: “Can I do this?”
I’ve had times when I was outwardly on board with our fostering plan, vocally advocating for the birth family or for my son, but inwardly I confess I had moments where I hoped it would all fall apart so he could stay with us. I simultaneously wanted him to be reunified with his birth family, and I can say it’s possible to survive that tension while advocating for your child, or his parents, but it’s certainly not easy. There were times when the case was in limbo, when I had to fight to stay in the game because everything in me wanted to emotionally pull away from a potentially painful situation. I don’t like big swings of feeling. Okay, maybe rage is fun, but generally I’m not big on heartbreak. It’s not romantic to me. But foster and adoptive parents have all these feelings, and if you don’t have the stomach for that kind of roller coaster in service to the child, it’s probably not for you.
We’ve had to keep our focus on what our son needs at all times. We’ve had to make choices about how to balance that with the needs of our birth children and our marriage. We’ve done it wrong a lot. And though there are lots of families in our community and our church serving children in this way, because there is so much mystery and misconception around it, it can feel like a lonely vocation. People in your periphery will look at you like you’re a hero, but you’re not, you’re a willing parent. Because you’re a person with ego and not in fact, the Savior of humanity, you will have to remind yourself of that from time to time.
What’s love got to do with it?
Here’s a factual statement I read years ago that, at the time, everything in me rebelled against: Love isn’t enough.
Adoption is amazing. But it’s not the only way. In some situations, it’s not even the best way. It’s always a safety net. In our state, the primary goal in every fostering case, where possible, is family preservation. Living with your birth family, when it’s safe and possible to do so, is always best. Adoptive families, no matter how wonderful and loving, cannot make up for the loss of being separated from your birth family. We can help children navigate that as they grow up, but that loss is a loss. And that loss will be felt at different times in different ways. Some of my adoptee friends felt grief most keenly when they had their own children. My own grandmother wrestled with things well into her later years of life. So it’s a lifelong journey. Kids need space to deal with that and, contrary to the happy endings of every adoption movie I’ve ever seen, these situations don’t tie up neatly. Adoptees and foster children don’t need the pressure of being perennially “grateful” getting in the way of their social and emotional health.
An adopted family is going to have to be astutely aware of the needs of a fostered or an adopted child. You’ll have to develop ways to protect your child and family from those who are curious and make inappropriate remarks about your family or children’s race, often in front of your child. We took a trip to Ikea early on when Batman arrived (new placements may require hasty home remodeling) and as I was pushing him in our cart, a woman stopped to ask me, “Awww, is he yours? Where did you get him?” He’s not a sweater, he’s a person. I almost gave the woman a warehouse aisle number. “Right by those fourteen-dollar easels, but before you get to the futons.” She, herself, was an adoptive parent whose son was born in China, which in my mind made it worse that she felt comfortable expecting a stranger to disclose that kind of information to her.
As a foster parent, you’ll probably have some interaction with the birth family, but once an adoption is final, you may have to be creative in how you include the birth family in your life. You’re going to have to be open and honest with your child about the circumstances that brought them into your family, and you’re going to probably have those conversations way before you think your child will be able to understand them. You’re going to have to fail as a parent, and be open to correction.
We adopted transracially and we’re constantly challenged to check ourselves and meet the needs of our son instead of staying in all-white spaces that make us comfortable. Over time, those familiar spaces have become increasingly awkward for us; and, we are glad for it. We have to continually cultivate relationships with people that will hold our feet to the fire and keep us accountable to our commitment on this, because as generations before us proved, it is incredibly easy for well-intentioned white folks to abandon ship and default to what feels right to us. Some of the biggest adjustments you may be called upon to make won’t seem heroic to your family or friends. You might just seem weird or distant. You may become controversial over these choices. Again, your loyalties will be tested.
There are many things about foster parenting and adoptive parenting that are similar to parenting children born to you, but for me, it has raised the stakes on what I’m doing with all three of my children. I’m not just parenting an adopted child, I’m parenting the siblings of an adopted child, and so I have to help them understand and navigate all of this, too. I’m only confident in how I’m handling all this about 23% of the time, but I’m 100% committed to doing better than I did yesterday.
I may write about this more in the future, but I think the adoption and our impending return to service as foster parents has made me wonder if I’m doing enough to help people understand this. There are so many complicated issues around adoption and fostering, and what some of these kids go through is horrific. It’s understandable that we would want to cut right to a happy conclusion. But if we do that, we’re choosing palliation over empathy and apathy over action. These kids deserve better than that.
We’ve given our Batman a loving family to call home. He’s given us infinitely more love (and a toddler’s share of trouble) in return. There is a huge need for new foster families, but these children are vulnerable, and as rewarding as the work is, it is work. It takes effort, humility, and flexibility to be a foster or adoptive family. It’s not for everyone, but everyone can be aware of how it works, and find ways to be supportive of the children involved.
If you’re curious about adoption, here are three resources that have been helpful to me so far (does not include a link to our local foster parenting association, but that’s a great help. Our county has excellent trainings and workshops on parenting.):