Expanding and Contracting and Expanding Again

How many times have people commented on what they see as the impossibility of our life? Difficult deliveries. Lots of young children, one right after the other. Foster care thrown on top.

How many times have I responded back that God gives grace for what he gives? I didn’t have the grace (or the skills) for three when I only had two – but God gave the grace when he gave the third child. Ditto four. And five. (Even if the skills are still a work in progress, to be honest!)

Nothing makes this more clear than when a foster child moves from our home.

Sweet P lived with us for 20 months and was reunited with her biological family in November of last year. We were so excited (still are!) to be able to participate in a successful reintegration. Of course, it was bittersweet – as happy as we are for her and her family, we are also sad to no longer have the connection we once had (We are so thankful that we have a good relationship with Sweet P’s family and have been able to see her a few times since reintegration, most recently an overnight just last night.)

Five children (including Sweet P!) around the dining room table
The view around my dining room table this noon – five of my precious children together again

Anyway, having a foster child move is bittersweet, but there’s another feeling I wasn’t quite prepared for when we started fostering. It was a feeling of… ease. Like, “wow, it’s a lot easier to parent four than five.”

The strange thing is, it wasn’t that easy to parent four back before four became five. My capacity expanded somewhere along the way. God gave grace for what he gave – grace for five.

But our family size contracted for a bit, and the bit of ease that comes with four instead of five has given me additional wiggle room now that I’m frequently parenting alone while Daniel travels for business. And has given me some additional wiggle room to help me establish good habits in our homeschool.

But it’s time for expansion again.

Four children has become five again.

Not a foster child this time. We’re not sure when Daniel will be done traveling and the logistics of a new placement don’t work very well with our current situation (lots of appointments that need to be done rapidly don’t work very well when you have four other children that you can’t take with you – thanks COVID! – and a husband that may or may not be out-of-state at any time in the near future). So we won’t be taking new foster children until we have a more settled schedule.

Playdough with the figure of a very pregnant woman stamped onto it
The Sumerian cylinder seal I made for myself as part of our history studies (Tirzah Mae thinks I should start looking like this tomorrow, since I’ve been pregnant almost a month :-P)

But four has become five again – it’s time to stop popping bon-bons (ha!) Instead, we are preparing to expand again as God gives grace for a new little one arriving on the outside sometime in September.

Where are the pro-lifers now?

Kansas’s foster care system has issues. Everyone agrees on that. Some think rapid staff turnover in agencies is the issue. Others think it’s a lack of foster homes. Some think it’s too much regulation. Others think it’s too little regulation. Some complain of a “cash for kids” incentive system that funnels kids into foster care even when there’s nothing serious going on at home. Others complain that the system leaves too many kids in bad homes.

Whatever the issue, foster care is in the news with relative frequency here – and since I’m interested in foster care, I have a bad habit of reading the Facebook comments on those news stories.

Mostly, the comments are filled with the theories I’ve listed above. DCF stinks. The contractors who do the day-to-day work stink. The agencies stink. The police stink. Foster parents stink. Families of origin stink. Everybody’s pointing fingers at everybody in the comment sections.

And then there’s always someone who asks: “Where are the pro-lifers now?”

Well, I can’t answer for all the prolifers, but I know where some of them are.

Quite a few of the prolifers I know are doing foster care. Others are adopting. Still others teach parenting classes for parents who didn’t plan to get pregnant and have no idea what to do next. Others fill “diaper pantries” for families in need. Some gather freezer meals for exhausted foster families or give them beds so they can care for more children.

Others work in the school system and quietly provide what is needed for the kids in their classes who don’t have adequate support at home. Some provide doula care for pregnant women (some of whom can pay and some who can not), helping families start off on the right foot with their newborns.

Many more pray fervently and give generously when they become aware of needs.

When it comes to foster care, what I haven’t seen many of the prolifers I know do is comment on news articles asking why someone else isn’t solving the problem. Instead, they’re quietly doing what they can to help make the lives of those around them better.

These prolifers inspire me.

They inspire me to leave the comment sections behind and do my little part in this big task of loving people.

Marie Kondo has nothing on state surveyors

I’m a possibility person. I love to turn trash into treasure.

Give me a pile of tin cans and I’m using them as building blocks for my kids (I totally love my Pampered Chef Smooth-Edge Can Opener – not an affiliate link). Or we’re bowling in the hallway.

The lids? They’re perfect for making a memory game. Or I’ve seen cute windchimes made with them.

A vinegar jug could be a watering can or a sprinkler or a drip waterer or a self-watering planter. Or I could cut off the bottom and cut holes and weave yarn about it to make a basket.

Those horseradish jars are the most adorable things ever, and someday when I make my own candles, they’d be perfect containers.

That broken toy can totally be fixed or transformed into something else.

The puzzle with pieces missing? Well, there are lots of crafts one can do with puzzle pieces!

Everything sparks joy when I’m thinking about the possibilities for transforming it into something useful.

Which means that KonMari is not exactly the best way for me to declutter.

On the other hand, state licensing surveyors for foster care?

They’re a super-effective way of helping me get rid of several trash bags full of stuff.

Instead of “does this spark joy?”, the question I ask myself when surveyors are on their way out is “is it worth trying to figure out how to store this in a way that doesn’t make me look like a hoarder?” (which, you know, I probably am.)

Annual survey is when those pieces of paper that still have a color-able surface get shredded. When the cereal boxes that still haven’t been used for kids’ painting but don’t fit in the container I store them in get shredded as well. When the loose toys that don’t belong in sets get discarded. When the lids without containers and the containers without lids get tossed. When the just about empty bottle of lotion (that no one uses anyway) gets thrown out.

Marie Kondo has nothing on our annual licensing surveyors.

(We passed, by the way: “No areas of noncompliance noted.”)

Back to normal

We welcomed a new baby to the family last Thursday.

Since then, we’ve had throw-ups (on three different days) and diarrhea (minimum of three outfits per day for the affected kiddos) almost continuously.

Laundry has piled up. Dishes piled up until I decided to pull out the paper (no new dishes until the old ones are clean!) Floors have been disinfected umpteen zillion times.

Books have been read. Dump truck shows and DNA shows watched. Endless snuggles given.

At any given moment, there might be a child dancing, a child bawling, and a child napping (thank goodness all these kids can sleep through anything!)

Folks, we’re back to normal. It feels wonderful.

Complicated thoughts

There’s no such thing as uncomplicated foster care.

Children don’t go into foster care unless something complicated has happened to them. They’ve been neglected or abused. They’ve been exposed to drugs, in utero or out. They’ve lived in squalor. They have scars. Physical scars, emotional scars, developmental scars.

Foster children behave in complicated ways. They’ve learned to “overreact” or to not react. They’ve learned to cope however they can. Many times, they’ve been exposed to things their young brains cannot process.

And foster families? Well, we can be complicated too. We get tired and frustrated and angry. We get confused. Sometimes we have no idea what to do. We do what seemed to work for our biological kids and it completely backfires on us. We try to do that thing we read about in a book and we can’t figure out whether it isn’t working because we haven’t been doing it long enough – or if we just need to give up on it because it’s never going to work.

The foster families I know try. We want to what’s best by our foster children. We don’t always know what that looks like, though.

Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s Three Little Words, written after she’d been adopted out of foster care, illustrates the complicated-ness of foster care – and induces complicated thoughts and emotions in this particular foster parent.

Ashley was taken into foster care at age three and was passed around from home to home – 14 total homes before she went into a “children’s home” (aka orphanage) and was finally adopted as a preteen.

Many of Ashley’s placements were well-meaning folks, although ones that seemed overwhelmed with greater-than-capacity children. Further, it seemed few of them were aware of the difficulties surrounding raising a child with a background of trauma. Foster parents overreacted when Ashley peed the bed or described sex as she’d seen it. I wondered as I read if this sort of thing is why the new “TIPS-MAPP” classes were put into place: “Trauma Informed Partnering for Safety and Permanence – Model approach to Partnerships in Parenting.” That’s what we took when we were preparing to become foster parents. We learned about the effects trauma has on kids, about the role of attachment in fostering, about how our own emotions and thoughts and experiences interact with the pressure-cooker environment of parenting kids from trauma. Maybe I am able to be better than these parents Ashley had because I took that class. But I still know that if either my biological children or my foster children were to write a book, they could certainly isolate the times when I lost my cool, when I overreacted, when I snapped at the kids or blamed or shamed them. By the grace of God, I’m growing in patience and gentleness as a mother – but there’s still plenty of growth needed.

Then Ashley had some truly terrible placements – one with a child molester (who fortunately was not able to get to her before she was pulled from the home) and one with a sadistic child-abuser who mistreated her and other foster children for years. It’s tough reading, but surprisingly not as tough for me as the not-so-bad homes were. These folks were monsters I could not identify with – I would not do those things to a child.

But the “normal” homes, they fill me with self-doubt. Maybe fostering requires one-on-one attention. Maybe being a part of a big family is fine and good for kids who’ve known my love from day one, but maybe it’s impossible to love a child from hard places amidst the pressures of leading a large family. Maybe I’m still not patient enough. Maybe my distaste for buying stuff communicates lack of care to the foster children in my care – after all, if I loved them, wouldn’t I be buying them new toys and clothes all the time?

I read this book after our most recent foster daughter was placed in a kinship home. We didn’t get any calls with potential placements for over a month. And then when we did get a call? I read the paperwork and stuttered. I’m afraid. Ashley Rhodes-Courter has made me afraid.

It’s a very complicated book about which I’m having some very complicated emotions.

Lest I Get Cocky

Going from four children to three (in a good way) is a strange experience.

In a life that generally just gets harder and harder (as we add new children and new developmental stages), things suddenly get that much easier.

The kids all fit in one row of the Expedition, allowing me to enjoy the full back for groceries. The number of children is only one more than my number of hands. It’s that much easier to coordinate nap times.

I start to feel like I’m on top of it all, like I’ve got strength in myself to handle anything, like I don’t need anyone.

And then we do weekend respite for a two-month-old on the same weekend Daniel was volunteering for something and we were having people over and have a Sunday night meeting at church.

I’m exhausted.

And I’ve been disabused of any secret thoughts I’d been harboring of my self-sufficiency.

“I need Thee, oh, I need Thee;
Every hour I need Thee;
Oh, bless me now, my Savior!
I come to Thee.”

This is normal

Exhausted. Overwhelmed. Wondering what on earth I’ve gotten myself into.

These are the feelings that have been my regular companions over the past week.

In my lowest times, I’m wishing I could just be done. I want to dissolve onto the floor in tears. I want to shut the door and just be alone.

This wasn’t supposed to be this hard this soon, I think.

And then I remember.

I remember postpartum life, adjusting to a new member of the household.

The tears, the exhaustion, the overwhelmingness of it all. The “what have I done?” The “can’t I just quit?”

It has taken me months to settle in to new routines each time I’ve welcomed another baby into the family.

Why should this be any different?

Yes, I’m not dealing with postpartum hormones (although, seriously folks, breastfeeding can mean some weird and whacked hormones too!) Yes, I’m not dealing with recovering incisions or tears. But I am adjusting to a new child’s routines. A new child’s cries. I’m adjusting my “old” children to the new child. Adjusting the new child to the “old” ones.

And unlike my postpartum experiences, this time I’m doing it without outside help. This time, I’m putting the meals on the table three or four times a day. I’m running to this appointment or that every day of the week. And all that with my husband’s car in the shop.

Calm down, I tell myself. This is normal. Don’t catastrophize. You will settle in. It just takes time.

And meanwhile, when the house is messy and my hair doesn’t get brushed and I’m throwing yet another round of sandwiches on the table, I can remind myself that God’s grace is sufficient for this season.

His power is made perfect in weakness.

When I dissolve on the floor in tears, he lifts my head and gives strength to go on.

And one day, four children will be easier and there will be a new challenge to remind me to lean on his grace.

For now, though, this is normal and this is right.

Desperately dependent on him.

Learning to say “Please”

Tirzah Mae and I just happen to be learning the same lesson these days. Now that she is three, and now that I have three children, we’re learning to say “please”.

Tirzah Mae is learning to say “please” as an alternative to making demands. I’m learning to say “please” as an alternative to “No, I’ve got this.”

For Tirzah Mae, learning to say please is about reorienting her natural ego-centrism that thinks the world should jump at her beck and call. Instead of “give me some water”, she’s learning to say “May I have some water, please?”

For me, learning to say please is about reorienting my natural pride that thinks I should be able to be self-sufficient. Instead of, “No, thanks, I can handle everything myself”, I’m learning to say, “Yes, please, I can’t do it on my own.”

So, when the nurse offers to push the stroller when I’m rounding up the children for our doctor’s appointment?

Yes, please.

When the library assistant offers to continue checking out my books while I take a newly potty-trained little one to the bathroom?

Yes, please.

When a fellow library patron offers to put my books in the bag so I can soothe the baby that’s beginning to fuss in her sling?

Yes, please.

When the lady at the grocery store offers a hand when I’m juggling kids and groceries and a phone call?

Yes, please.

It’s a lesson I think I’m learning just in time – because three is becoming four. We’ll soon have a little guy joining our family, for as long as he needs us.

Which means I need to step up my “please” game and ask for help instead of just accepting it.

Please pray for us as we open our home and our hearts to this precious little one. Please pray that the gospel would grow deep in our hearts and in his as we seek to practically minister the gospel to him.