I inwardly groaned as the electronic voice let me know that I had eight new messages on my cellphone. It had been a brutal week. I dragged my notebook closer and listened half-heartedly to the first message before dropping my pencil and hanging up. As much as I wanted to listen to the messages, and as much as I needed to, I just couldn’t.
Life experiences teach us the most—they teach us more than any textbook or seminar could. And then, every once in a while, we have a life experience that throws us for a hard curve that can toss us right off the road. In our journey of fostering and adopting, this has happened many times.
When, two months into our fostering journey, we were asked to foster a newborn baby girl who would not be going home with her birth parents, we knew from the very first time we heard her name that we were supposed to adopt her. Except, it was much more complicated than we ever imagined. While she and I both would lie away at night, her shrieking and shaking with cocaine withdrawal, me with tears running down my face, I would pray. She would be laying on my chest, I would be sitting back in a recliner, my husband and I muscled up the stairs into our loft bedroom—this was the only way that she would even consider sleeping, even if it was 20 minutes at a time. “Please God…let her stay…..let her stay……” would be my mantra as I groggily bounced her, one hand under her bottom, her head up under my chin, as I tried to settle her and get some sleep.
I was extremely sleep deprived several months in and no closer to answers in her case. We were battling some huge obstacles, and I struggled to see outside of our narrow window of the world. Baby showers carried on, birthday parties and holidays happened, but I was a little bit blank. I was slogging through the strict legal system for children in foster care. I was told at one point that we would be lucky if her case was resolved by the time she was 6! That aside, the fear that she might not stay was almost crippling to me. This was huge for us, but I felt most people wanted to avoid it. I remember carrying my tiny girl up to the front of the church one Sunday morning—there had been an altar call for anyone needing prayer. I virtually jumped out of my seat at the chance. I remember she was swaddled, snuggled against my chest, as usual. I got to the front and tears just flowed. I felt I was in a safe place, a place where people would care and understand. It became pretty clear, pretty quickly, as I sobbed about how hard it was to care for an infant that you might not get to keep, that the person receiving my prayer request was slowly, emotionally, backing away from me. Looking back, the magnitude of the situation may have overwhelmed her, and she might not have known what to say. While I was sobbing and breaking apart, she gave me a quick pat on the arm, and a rote, “Please protect this baby” prayer, smiled, and walked away…. I was devastated. I would have given absolutely anything in that moment for a hug, a moment of someone’s time, anything. Instead, I was standing at the front of the church with a swaddled baby, now alone and embarrassed. This was the start of a wall building up in my heart.
I’m not proud of my wall that I carefully built, but it was a wall of necessity, I felt, at the time. I know now that it wasn’t helpful, but it happened. This scene would play out over and over. Tyler and I were struggling with a legal beast we didn’t understand, and it was going to affect the rest of our lives—and this little girl’s life. To me, this was everything. We quickly found that people did not want to talk about it. Much like how people can avoid those who have had a loved one die, or how we can awkwardly tiptoe around talking about a lost loved one, we found people would abruptly change the subject, or even walk away from us! I was unable to share, and I felt that we were on our own. Our extended families were distressed at our situation, but we didn’t want to worry them more. As a result, I shut down. I stopped attending group functions where I felt the conversations about the best brands of diapers or wipes were too mundane and belied the severity of what we were going through. (Once, I would snap back, “WHO CARES what type of wipes you use? They all work!” I couldn’t wrap my head around why anyone would wrestle with an inconsequential thing like this when children, Canadian children in our own community, languished in foster care.) I felt misunderstood and sort of rejected. We were alone.
I became the type of friend that isn’t really a good friend. I asked for help with babysitting but never reciprocated. As time moved on, we were now fostering another little girl who was critically ill at BC Children’s Hospital. I was 14 hours from home, without my husband and other kids, and no one could figure out what was wrong. When we did come home, it was with a feeding tube that she still has, six years later. With a 5-year-old I was newly homeschooling, a 4-year-old, a 2-year-old with severe and sometimes bizarre behavioral issues, and a 2-month-old with a nasogastric feeding tube that I often had to reinsert several times a day and draw back stomach fluid to put on test strips or use a stethoscope to listen for tube sounds in her tummy, we probably looked like a walking disaster. ….And I felt that we WERE a walking disaster because people were still distancing themselves from us fairly regularly. One particularly bright spot was having a church group from the Vancouver, BC area come and visit Memphis and me in the hospital several times. I was depressed, anxious, and utterly an emotional mess. Some of these ladies sat with me, gave me devotionals, texted me, brought me homemade food (I was living off of packaged treats from the hospital coffee shop, as I was too worried to leave Mem’s cribside). Later on, during a subsequent trip, I tried to make contact again but was told, “We are really busy right now.” Looking back, I understand this, and I have had to reply like this many times. At the time though, it was another blow.
Not only did I avoid social settings and was unable to reciprocate childcare, I virtually stopped answering my phone. I felt like it was just too much to pretend to be happy, to pretend that everything was okay—to pretend. I had learned already that being real and raw just pushed people away. So, I didn’t answer my phone. I would often wait until I had messages backed up so far that the voicemail box was full and then the task of returning those copious amounts of calls was overwhelming. Sometimes my inbox would be full of messages regarding upcoming therapy and appointments, further cramming my schedule.
Through it all, Tyler and I clung to each other and to our faith in God. We wouldn’t have gotten through, otherwise. Slowly, slowly, I felt some cracks appearing in the wall of self-protection that I had made. It started with a conversation with a therapist one of my kids was seeing. I had sort of vented to her in one quick, gushing whoosh about how isolated I felt at times and how other people were pulling away from us when things got tougher. She said something that I will never forget, “Maybe they feel intimidated by you—by what you do, and what you’ve done.” Intimidated? By ME? I’m the awkward one that shows up with pig poop on my boots and hay in my hair. I’m the one who has to leave early due to a child’s behavior. I am the one who has had to end a foster placement for the safety of our family, but because those details can’t be shared, I’m the one it looks like “gave up” on a child. Who would be intimidated by me?
Fortunately, this was a jumping-off spot. There was something there, in that comment, that just sparked something in me. No, I don’t want anyone to be intimidated by me. But I DO want people to see ME, the REAL me, in the mess and in the muck, because that is reality. Foster care and adoption are really, really hard. As the Matthew West song Do Something goes, if not me then who?
Times flies when you have five kids and a farm. We are years past where we have been, but one thing hasn’t changed. We keep facing challenging situations. We have faced death threats, parents threatening their children whom we have adopted, tough situations in life with unhappy customers, economic downturns, broken friendships, miscommunications, you name it. Every single time, Tyler and I go into lockdown mode. For us, that means we choose to slow down and protect what we have. Our time, our family, and our peace.
Sitting on the bed with my phone in my hand, I was shaking. I had been ignoring a phone number I didn’t recognize for a couple of days, but it kept popping up. I finally checked my messages and sank down in shock….someone had threatened the very life of one of my kids. With shaking hands, I called my husband at work. The line was crackling and alive, but yet silent on his end. “We shouldn’t panic,” was his wise and sagely advice. I am forever thankful for a calm man to be married to because if he was as excitable as I, we would be in trouble. I wanted to scream, “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT??” but instead I took a deep breath, informed my older children that today they would be coming to watch the younger kids’ violin lesson, and started getting everyone out the door. Amidst the complaints, and questions (Why? We never have to go to their practices! Why can’t we stay home?), I was outwardly calm. I had been here before. This was not new territory. Still in shock, but I knew I would survive. One foot in front of the other, keep going. I tried to keep a smile with my insides quaking. Tyler and I were unified in our belief that the kids should never be in fear over any situation, and that it is OUR job to handle it in full. So, I put on a smile, said, “I’m taking everyone for doughnuts! Then I’ll talk to you older kids about some things later.” This doesn’t mean they were told everything, but it means they were told enough to understand that for a while, no kids would be staying home without an adult. And that if anyone made them feel uncomfortable, or if they answered any weird phone calls, to let us know immediately. And….it meant for me, that I wouldn’t be answering requests, emails, texts, messages, or calls that were not absolutely necessary. I had finally found the confidence to be me, the real me, to deal with what was going on, but to be unapologetic about my inability to do much of anything else at the time.
This summer, we had a birth parent living with us under house arrest. It was a plan Tyler and I were humbled and joyous to be a part of, and it was a beautiful three weeks we all spent together. We laughed and joked about our need to accompany the parent even into the corner store to buy cigarettes. We made meals together and cleaned the house. We even attended the local fall fair together. This year was a rainy summer, and sure enough, it rained the day we packed five kids and six horses up for the horse show portion. We had survived the rabbit and poultry show the day before, and I was feeling elated that we had done it—made it through another summer of horse activities with flair. We didn’t just survive, we thrived. We did less, with the adoption of our youngest only a few months before, but what we did, we did well. A situation arose, as it always seems to when we have our hands full, and I felt it: “Can I do this? This is nuts….five kids, six horses, and an adult under house arrest with me to boot!” I stopped myself in my tracks. Here I was, with an opportunity. Crumble or shine, fall apart or show this birth parent how to persevere. I sort of chuckled to myself—my gumboots on, jeans soaked from the rain, cowboy hat dripping water down the back of my rain-repellent (definitely not rainproof) coat, my hair wild, the horses looking wilder. The birth parent was helping pin competitor numbers on kids, her own and others, I watched, and just loved this person, who has overcome so much and has more yet to overcome. “If I can do this…all this fostering and adopting stuff…I can do anything!” I told myself and I kicked off into the rain, the mud, and the muck. I even showed a horse or two myself that day, and I whispered to myself what would be my response in the future, “If ever I don’t answer you, your call, your text, your message, it doesn’t mean I don’t care; no, it probably means I’m overwhelmed, that I’m dealing with things beyond what I imagined. It means I’m probably struck down right now, but I’m not destroyed. I’ll call you back when I can.”