Grace

I learned in 8th grade Sunday school class that grace is God’s unearned love.

Foster care has taught me many things, but I think most of all I have learned about grace.    Obviously, my life has changed in wildly significant and truly inexplicable ways in the last 7 years.  I have learned about myself, my wife, my family, my friends.  I have been shown mercy and love.  I have been disappointed, heartbroken, ecstatic, relieved, humbled.  I thought I knew what was going to happen to us in the foster care experience, but that was so foolish.  My naivety led me to believe I had it all under control, and my experience shows me time and time again, I do not.

The learning curve for parenting in a “normal” situation is pretty steep from what I can gather.  Tiny people with their own minds and own agendas often throw a kink in the plan parents make.  The learning curve for parenting in foster care is doubly steep, maybe even more so for first time parents.  Maybe if you’ve parented biological children, rearing extra children who often have their own set of trauma and loss and complications may be somewhat more navigable.  I doubt it, but perhaps.  In foster care, there are social workers and biological parents and doctors and healthcare workers and GALs and counselors and a plethora of individuals invested in a child.  Add all of this on top of trying to figure out how to parent, and it can be overwhelming at times, to say the least.

I was not prepared for the complex path that we came to after adoption was completed.  My children have two sets of parents now, biological and us.  They do not remember their biological families, but one of our children asks about birth parents a lot.  Answering in appropriate, developmentally sound ways is not always easy.  This is not a simple life.  When foster care first came into our lives, I had no time for parents who did not take care of their children.  It is still foreign to me, but the compassion I feel has multiplied significantly for the position many people find themselves in.

We have no relationship with two birth parents.  We have an extremely limited one with the third.  The fourth is a person we keep in touch with regularly.  A biological grandmother is the person we have the most contact with via email and now texting.  She has always sent gifts for her grandchild.  She asks regularly how everyone is and updates us on the birth parent she mothers.  I sat down with her last year and talked with her for a long time in Starbucks; learning her perspective and answering her questions.  She spent time with her grandchild soon after in a very limited and controlled setting.  There was fun and laughing and sharing, our baby none the wiser to the significance of this moment to the grown-ups there and to her.  This woman thanked us, told us so many times that this opportunity truly meant more to her than anything and was more than she ever imagined she would have the opportunity for.  Seven years ago, I would have never considered this to be an option.  I’m still not so great about it…I am the hesitant party in our marriage.  How do you protect your children, make them feel loved and safe, answer their questions, address their losses, provide them with the right opportunities to know different people and parts of their former selves without screwing it all up?  I wish I had the answers.  I wish someone I could talk to had the answers. What a complicated and tangled ball of emotions to unravel.

I want to close the door on the past, lock it, and never go back.  This is not reality, nor is it healthy for our children.  I want to say, “You had your chance.” Grace has shown me otherwise. Grace has reminded me over and over again that we are all imperfect.  We have circumstances, moments, life-altering events that mold us into the people we are.  We have support systems, goals, relationships, money, opportunities given to us; or we do not.  There are so many factors into who we become and the path our lives take.  The formula is changing every day, for every person, in an infinite number of ways.  How do we end up being the person we are?  There is so much that factors in, most of it out of our control.  I can no longer close the door and think how much better I am than someone else.  Foster care has erased that lie in my brain.

Life is hard to explain and often hard to figure out.  I have figured out that everything is not so simple, not so black and white.  I yearn for life to be a mystery I can determine.  Clearly, it is not.  I have figured out that the one thing we must offer to each other, over and over again, is grace.

How do we show love to others?

How do we show unearned love to others?

How do we show God’s unearned love to others?

How do we show God’s unearned love to ourselves?

Striving for grace.

Miracle

1 year ago today, December 1 of 2018, I stood at the bedside of a six week, one day old baby and waited for the moment he might die. It still haunts my deepest thoughts like it was yesterday. On November 30, he had to be ventilated, had a septic code (while neither my wife nor I were at the hospital), was a pin cushion for a central line that he desperately needed but they couldn’t get, and scared my soul at the local hospital. They wisely made the decision to have him transferred elsewhere, and in the wee hours of Saturday morning, I was woken up from my couch bed in his brother’s room while they prepared his tiny, broken body to fly to Duke hospital. There had been no one willing to transport this tiny baby on the brink of death, but Levine’s Echmo team finally answered the call. At around 4:45am, he left to fly to Duke, I kissed his sweet, stable brother farewell, and left to drive the hour to meet him.

I arrived at Duke first. I got lost and locked in a stairwell, but eventually made it to the PICU. He arrived around 7:00 and his nurse came to see me in the waiting room. She introduced herself and told me she’d be out in a few minutes to get me. I sat in the waiting room for a little over three hours with only my thoughts and Chip and Joanna Gaines on the TV for company. I was frantic by the time someone finally came out at 10:15. I slept only 45 minutes the previous night of the ventilator being placed and for maybe two hours early that morning. I was alone, and I was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. Heather was with his brother and our children were with their grandparents. We were spread thin in so many ways, but we did the best we could. Our village was our stronghold.

The day before, the social work supervisor for the boys had come to the hospital. We had been assured that if the worst happened, everyone knew we were not to blame. I knew I was supposed to find comfort in that, but a dying baby has to be at the top of everyone’s worst moment list. I was distraught. Him being alone in the room with no mother there when he coded wracked me with guilt. As soon as I got there from work I told Heather we would not leave him alone again until a medical professional could tell me, with certainty, that he was not going to die. I did not know how I would live with myself if he died, but I knew I would never recover if he was alone when it happened. Sitting for those three hours in a waiting room at Duke, imagining what awful things his little body was enduring while he was without me, was excruciating. I have never been so happy to see a person I didn’t know than when that nurse came for me.

When I got to him, I found my same little boy lying there; tiny, swollen, sedated, air being pumped into his lungs and medicine being pumped into his veins. He was still alive, but I could tell that no one was sure how long it would last.

I cried buckets of tears that day. Medical jargon was rattled off at me every few minutes, to which I listened intently, but did not fully understand. I kept asking, over and over again, “Is he stable yet?” No one ever said yes. One doctor did tell me he would be hospitalized for at least six weeks. I panicked slightly then, but decided to save that worry for when the time came. Right then, I just needed him to stay alive.

The nurse assigned to him was only his. She left his room once the entire day, and ran back in frantically thinking something was wrong, while the respiratory therapist adjusted the ventilator. I would not have made it through that day without her. She made me go eat. She made me sit down in a chair and breathe. She made me go out to walk a lap and go to the bathroom. I trusted her with every ounce of my being. She answered every question I asked. She explained all that medical talk I didn’t understand. I could tell she wanted to answer the way I needed her to every time I asked if he was going to live, but she never lied to me. I knew that if he was meant to live, this nurse would make sure he did. I have thanked God for her many times. She saved me that day. We made handprints and footprints into holly leaves using his little body parts, me not realizing that we were getting them just in case the worst did happen. I’m thankful for my exhausted naivety in that moment. It felt almost like a stress relief to do that with him in the moment. It didn’t register until much later, after he’d been home for a while, that this was the reason. My friend, Missy, came to Duke that afternoon to hug me as well. She saved me that day too.

Eventually night came, and he was still alive. I had fielded so many calls and texts that day of people worried for him and for us. I had texted everyone from our church and begged them to have every service pray for him. Others I knew were doing the same with their congregations and friends. I never felt like I needed God more than in these days. He answered my prayers.

The nurse changed, she showed me immediately she could be trusted to care for my baby, and I fell asleep in a chair for the most solid four hours of sleep I’d had in almost a week. At 10:00 I woke up, ready to go, and she said to me, “You know I’m going to make you go back to sleep right? You’re not done with that.” (Nurses are the best thing to happen to sick people and their caregivers. Don’t you ever let yourself forget that.)

When Sunday morning shift change came, my boy was alive. Attitudes and moods were shifting. I started to feel hope. Maybe I was witnessing a miracle.

And I did just that. He spent two weeks at Duke, one in the PICU and one on the pediatric floor. That little baby did something (I’m pretty certain) most medical professionals did not believe would happen. That baby will always be my boy who lived. He will (hopefully) be the worst thing I witnessed struggle, but survive. The trauma he caused for my emotions caught me regularly with him. A cough, bruise, weird spit up, or any unordinary occurrence had me sobbing in the doctor’s office. I will never be the same, but that’s perfectly fine with me. What I did was nothing compared to what he did.

I got a picture of him yesterday, one year later. That boy is a living miracle on this earth. I am so thankful for him.

CPR

One of the requirements for a foster care license is CPR and First Aid certification. I went to the class today offered at DSS and settled in to my seat. My dummy greeted me from the table. I’ve done this training several other times, no biggie. After a bit of instruction, I left the group to go use the restroom. As I walked back in, I saw them…the infant CPR dummies.

I panicked. I had forgotten about those baby CPR recipients.

Last November, the twins caught RSV right after our trip to see family at Thanksgiving. They were six weeks old, but still had not reached their actual due date. They were tiny and fragile.

RSV turned into a three week nightmare of sick, almost dying babies. Three weeks of terror, exhaustion, helplessness, desperation, and just willing tiny boys to live.

The sicker baby to begin with stopped breathing in the pediatrician’s office on the day of their diagnosis. He was administered CPR by the doctors in the practice. Heather was with them at that visit, and their doctor talked me through what had happened on the phone as I picked up our other two children.

The trauma I experienced in those three weeks still comes back to me in moments. Today, those infant dummies, lying on their backs on the table at DSS, took me right back.

When the instructor put my baby in front of me, I looked at it for a minute, and then I started to cry. I saw a lifeless baby in need of heroic measures to live less than a year ago in a hospital bed. This baby was too much. When the infant part of the training came on the screen, I took my baby and stood in the back of the room. I may have snotted on it from crying when I gave it mouth-to-mouth, but CPR was administered.

I wanted to ask to leave during that part. I didn’t think I could do it. But if I learned anything from those awful three weeks of time, it was that hard things can be done. Mommies can pray and cry and sleep in chairs and beg God to heal. Babies can survive. I know they don’t always. I know there are harder things than what we faced. I know we were fortunate to bring both boys home alive because that is not always the case.

So today, my trauma came for me. I was not expecting it, and it snuck up on me. I explained my tears to the instructors. They were so gracious. I did what I had to do to get through those 45 minutes. I faced my trauma, and my baby and I passed the infant CPR certification.

I used to think I couldn’t do hard things. I did not believe I was strong or resilient. I think most of us would say this about ourselves or have thought it in the past. We were wrong.

I am strong. You are strong. We are strong.

Look your trauma in the face and don’t let it bully you into leaving the room. If you need help, seek it out. There is nothing wrong with that. Find the people who will walk you through. Call me if you can’t think of anybody else. We need people. Together, we can do hard things.

All Saints Day

In the United Methodist Church, the first Sunday in November is All Saints Day. It is the day we remember the people in our church family, and in our own lives, who have died in the last year. I attended a service at our church that I do not typically attend, and the names of around twenty church members were read and candles lit in their memory. Towards the end of the service, we were invited to come down and light a candle for those personal to us who had passed in the last year. My grandfather died in July, and I went down to the altar as soon as we began the hymn. I lit my candle and went back to my seat. Soon after, more people started to file down to the front of the sanctuary. So many people with tears in their eyes, standing at the altar before God, remembering someone who meant something to them. It was a visual reminder to me that people are carrying the burden of grief with them every single day. We know so little of the hearts of the people we see regularly.

I almost lit two candles today. One for my grandfather and one for my life as the mother of twin boys. The boys are, of course, healthy and happy babies; alive and well in the arms of their new parents. But to me, that season of life has ended. We met the boys one year ago today. They were the tiniest babies I had ever seen; startling at first glance. I had no idea what the journey they would take us on would look like in those moments holding each of their tiny bodies in that hospital room.

It seems too coincidental. One year from meeting to grieving, sitting in a church that is my extended family. How can so many things happen in such a short period of time? Life happens so quickly.

Our pastor said, “We celebrate those who have gone to the church triumphant.”

We celebrate those we loved. We celebrate those we miss. We celebrate life.

Sorry, not sorry

My nature is to apologize. This is something I am actively working on trying to restrict for myself. I do not need to apologize for everything. I do not need to apologize for things that are not in my control. I am not sorry!

The reality of the twins leaving our home is settling in. Early this week, I was surprised at how well I was handling this big shift. Late in the week, I am hugging my phone to my face wishing it was the baby on the screen, instead of his sweet, smiling picture. Even still, when people ask me how we’re doing, my natural reaction falls somewhere around “Oh we’re doing pretty well!”

Today I decided that I should be able to say, “I am an emotional basket case at a moment’s notice,” and not feel like I should apologize for it! What we do is hard. What we do is so important. What we do matters. Losing an integral part of your life, especially in the form of a baby, is hard! This is happening to us, but with two babies. I have a right to be an emotional wreck, even if my babies have moved into the life they are meant for. We are doing pretty well with it, but is so much more complicated than just that. It is impossible to describe.

So I am sorry for making you uncomfortable by crying at the mention of my boys, but I am not sorry that I am crying. I earned these tears. I have a right to my heartbreak.

Sorry, not sorry.

How we got here.

Heather and I started dating in July of 2006.  We were “closeted” for a significant period of time to many of the people we love.  We were terrified of the potential for lost relationships and the heartache we may have caused.  I think if we had it all to do again, we might do things differently.  No matter though, we cannot go back, so we live with the choices we’ve made and are thankful for how our life has been shaped because of those choices.

I am a teacher.  For ten years, I taught elementary school.  Two of those years, I looped with my class.  This means that I taught 4th grade one year, and then the next year I taught the same group of kids in 5th grade.  One of my students was in foster care those years.  She was a beautiful soul, but she was struggling more days than she was not.  She was my tornado of chaos.  I loved her fiercely those two years, and I still think about her often.

One of those years, I think in 2011, I came home from school and told Heather I had been thinking about us being foster parents.  Our home was stable.  We loved kids.  I was a teacher, and Heather was a nanny.  There were two empty bedrooms in our house.  We could totally be parents! Clearly, I had no clue what being a parent would actually be like, but naivety was our friend in these days! We talked about foster care, and she told me she didn’t think she could be a foster parent.  Loving children and then giving them back was something she worried we were not capable of without losing ourselves, so the discussion stopped.  Foster care is not a compromise.  Everyone needs to be all in for it to work.  I put it in the back of my mind and waited.

Several month after this, I’m not sure when or why, Heather came to me to say that she wanted to investigate foster care. We had heard somewhere that there was an interest meeting, so we signed up.  We told no one. The meeting came and went, and we signed up for a January class that is mandatory for all foster parents called MAPP.  This is a long and intensive course about the in-and-outs of foster care and adoption.  Lots of acronyms and programs and what ifs and eye opening encounters with people and situations we were unfamiliar with.

One night of class, our instructor, an employee at DSS, called us into a room to tell us she didn’t think we were cut out for foster care.  For whatever reason, she didn’t think we were taking MAPP class seriously enough.  We looked at her and each other, and went back into class and continued to do just as we had.  We finished the class a few weeks later and waited for someone to call us about becoming licensed.

During the period of time we were taking the class and while waiting for licensing, we put the word out to our family and friends. We were met with a LOT of hesitancy.  The excitement we felt was not reciprocated.  Most of our closest people were worried about us, which is understandable.  Foster care does not get the “happy spot” on the news.  Usually, when we hear the words “foster care”, a joyful, heartwarming story does not follow.  Like we had done with our DSS instructor, we looked at them and to each other, then we kept right on with the process.

Over the next few months, a different DSS worker came to our house.  We answered so many questions about every aspect of our life.  Questions about our past, our current positions, and what we wanted for our future were asked to us both together and in separate interviews.  We gave specifications for the gender, race, age, and physical health of potential children that would make up our future family.  Our house was looked over, purchases of “kid” things were made, the fire inspector came, physicals were passed; a checklist of many things that felt tedious and a little bit overboard was slowly completed.  We finished this process, and our application for a license to house up to three children was sent in to the state for approval.

In August, our license came back approved, and all of a sudden our journey as parents could start any minute.  I thought the phone would ring immediately.  It did not.  We got a call for short-term care, called respite care, for three girls ages 5-13 right after school started back in August.  Other than that, it was quiet.  Heather and I got married in Washington DC in October 2013.  Our life continued on as it had.  One day shy of one month later, I got the call.  The next day, on our first month of marriage anniversary, our first placement was dropped off at our doorstep at about 6:30 in the evening. Just like that, we were moms.

Our foster care experience has been a roller coaster ride of emotions that have ranged from elation to devastation and everything in between.  Our journey did not start the night our daughter was delivered to our house.  To me, we got in the car and pulled down our lap bar on the day we sat down in that interest meeting. We slowly rode up to the top of the hill and came to our “first big hill” moment that night in November when a 10 month old chunk of pure goodness ended up in my arms and in our lives for what would turn out to be forever.

So turns out, we WERE cut out for foster care (here’s looking at you DSS worker who just licensed our last placement’s new foster parents).  Some days I didn’t think I was, and even now, on particularly hard or frustrating days, I question why we do this to ourselves.  But when I look at my own children or hold a tiny baby in withdrawal from drugs or make eight bottles for twin boys to eat at daycare, I know.  This is who I am called to be.  The five children that have lived in my home are why we do this.  Every decision made by total strangers provides consequences in their little lives, way more so than mine.  Today, I still feel like I did seven years ago when I first mentioned this to my wife.  “Babe! We can love children!”  And love them, we do.

“I’d get too attached…”

We said goodbye to foster kids 4 and 5 yesterday. I cried about it when it was planned on Wednesday. I cried about it when I put them in their cribs for the last time Friday night. I cried about it yesterday when I took their suitcase out of my car and then again when it was time to leave without them. I cried today when my pastor told me he knew it was hard and that the loved me. I’m crying now standing in my kitchen writing this in between sterilizing bottles to put back into a container in the attic. I will cry about it when I think too hard, when someone mentions them, when I find a stray sock, or for various other reasons for the next few weeks.

I got too attached.

I love these children with all my heart. They took me down a road I was in no way prepared to travel emotionally, or really at all. Twin boys, sixteen days old, tiny. Our own two kids only four and five. I had no clue what I was about to embark upon the day my wife brought those two car seats home from the hospital. Then they got sick and almost died, but that’s a story for another day. I have been sailing uncharted, mostly choppy waters for fourteen days shy of a year.

I got too attached.

I left a park yesterday without two boys. I left them with foster parents who will (hopefully) adopt them. I left them with a big sister who already loves them fiercely. I left them with a large extended family that ooh-ed and aah-ed over every single move they made in the two hours we were all together. I left them at a birthday party to celebrate their first birthday. I left them in a dream. Those boys will be living their best life, even though I left them.

They were smiling. They were laughing. They were snuggling on the shoulder of their new people.

These two boys are healthy and well-adjusted one year olds. They know what it feels like to be loved and well taken care of. They are totally unaware that they have experienced the trauma of foster care. They are everything.

I will heal. My wife will heal. Our children are already ready and eager for a new baby that may come in the future. This is the life they know.

These emotions are not easy. My heart is broken, but in the best way. What a joy and a privilege to have a broken heart for two boys to be whole and healthy. To have a broken heart for boys who know what it means to be loved fully and first.

So yes, I got too attached. The positive outcome of our mutual attachment though, far outweighs the sadness I feel. Often times this is the phrase first out of a person’s mouth when we broach the subject of foster care. I always think, “Yes! You’d be perfect! That is what it’s all about!” There is a world in need of people who will get too attached. The ripples of that sacrifice will go on further than we will ever know. Is it easy; oh no. Is it worth it; so much so it cannot truly be expressed.

My heart will heal. I know I am meant to be a beacon of love and light to children. God put me on this earth for that purpose. Maybe He wants you for the same reason. You’ll get too attached. We can heal together.

Foster care

Ann here. I started this blog a long time ago, when we decided to be foster parents. After much thought, I’ve decided to come back. Our lives have changed in significant ways since 2013 when I created this site. I have deleted the posts from before. They were not what I want this to be about now that we’re six years in.

So today we start over here. I hope my journey helps your life journey in some way.