Monday, May 27, 2019

So you’re like, just a stay-at-home mom?

It wasn’t the first time I’d gotten that question, and it won’t be the last, I’m sure. Truth be told though, it stung more than normal. (And not just because I was actually at a professional meeting as this woman’s peer - actually, kind of as her boss, but that’s neither here nor there.) 

It wounded this time because I did not have an true answer for her. I don’t have kids at home since my youngest started kindergarten this past August, but my children and their appointments still constitute a significant part of my week. I didn’t try to start a new job this fall; the flexibility I would require to care for my family is something not offered in the average workplace. There’s space in my life that hasn’t been there for 17 years. I don’t feel a kinship with calling myself a stay-at-home mom anymore. Her question left me uneasy because I couldn’t answer what’s next.

For months, I’ve felt unprepared, inadequate, and embarrassed that I didn’t know the next step for my life. I wanted to know this answer back in September, and here it is May. My youngest’s inaugural year of school is done. In many ways I’m struggling to not feel like this year was largely wasted. I’ve spent a lot of time working, but it’s not all that measurable for the general public. Significant time spent confronting wounds, healing pain, and working to transform my internal life: that doesn’t present like accomplishment. Making the work of this past year about learning to sit comfortably with who I am and the fact that I don’t know what’s next doesn’t read well on any sort of resume, official or not.

What are we to do when our life doesn’t look the way others think that it should? When what we should’ve done or accomplished, what we wanted to do or say or live or have doesn’t pan out in a way that is easily explained to others? Maybe you’re just a stay-at-home mom or just a receptionist. Maybe you spent thousands of dollars on education and now you’re working retail. Maybe you didn’t pass the bar or your civil service exam. Does this mean you aren’t fulfilling your promise? That you haven’t followed your dreams? The dreams that we have, dreams that others have for us, ways that society and culture thinks we should behave, milestones we’re expected to have reached at various points in our lives -- it’s pressure both internal and external that we weren’t meant to bear.

I was reminded of this the other day as I listened to an interview of a man who was living a very different life than mine. He’s a different nationality currently living in a major American city, is a celebrity of sorts, has been married for less than ten years, and has one young child. I’m full-fledged Midwestern both by birth and living situation, I have no celebrity whatsoever, we’re working on 22 years of marriage now, and five not-so-young children currently inhabit my home. Like I said, not a lot in common. He was speaking about his life trajectory and the reckoning he had to come to as he approached forty. Perhaps this is a thing for most forty-year-olds, but I’ve always assumed that the traditional “midlife crisis” tends to be more about life stage than years. This man and I are definitely at different life stages, so I was surprised to find such resonance with his words.

He talked about his past couple years where he had just burned out. His wife knew, his friends knew, but he just kept pushing and continuing with what he thought he was supposed to be doing. It was when he stopped that he came to some clarity about his life. He needed space and time off and away from the hustle. That’s when he realized the enemy had stolen his dreams. That statement turned on a light bulb for me. Whether or not your worldview would welcome language about “the enemy”, I think probably some of you can relate to this too.

Have you ever felt like your dreams have been stolen?

We all have enemies of our dreams. Circumstances, relationships, work — a lot of the time, that enemy might even be ourselves, but one thing I know for sure is all of that expectation and pressure placed on us by society and family and ourselves is what snuffs those dreams out quicker than anything. When I turned the corner towards forty this past year, people started asking me what my dreams were. I had no answers. This was part of my life that I had not explored in a long time. In fact, I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time teaching others about the unhealthiness of “following your dreams.” I don’t think that was absolutely wrong — there’s a lot of truth to doing the right thing, doing the thing you’re called to, not limiting your life because of pie-in-the-sky dreams that you might not actually be able to fulfill, opening your hands to what comes your way, even the unexpected things. There’s beauty in the ordinary, everyday lives that we live. Always longing for something more can be a thief of contentment, and sometimes all the dreaming and heart-following is itself a limitation. All this is true, but in my youthful exuberance to find the joy in the mundane, I had forgotten there’s also space for big dreams and audacious plans.

Most of us spend long years being faithful with what we’re given. Being a responsible adult demands it of you. I know the steadfastness required to live my life with integrity, but I’ve reached a point where I need to know what’s in my heart too. I’ve spent the past twenty years doing what was right in front of me. Just the next thing, over and over and over. There is both truth and beauty in that. It’s what helps you do hard things and learn to live with open hands. It’s what helps you accomplish big things, one step at a time. I don’t regret it, but it took me eight months of having no idea what the next thing was to clear out enough space in my soul that my dreams could resurface. I’m just now seeing the magic and grace in dreaming towards the things are way out in front of me. Do you have some things out there in front of you too? Or maybe they’re even to the side, just out of view. Maybe you can’t see them clearly, but there’s a spark. A tugging on the threads of your soul towards something.

You might have some of the same hang-ups and questions that I have about all of this dream talk. Isn’t this selfish? Self-indulgent? Isn’t responsibility and faithfulness about being content with what you have and what you do and who you are right now? Isn’t living with an open hand the opposite of dreaming? Foster care and adoptive parenting for ten years have put me into a purposeful and constant exercise of letting go, but as it turns out, I’ve held everything so loosely that I have held on to hardly anything at all. Open hands is a surrender to what’s next, but no longer do I believe it means not dreaming, not yearning.

This winter, I sat in my friend’s living room and listened to her lay out a dream. In subsequent months, I’ve watched her take steps towards that dream. A bittersweet ending made space for a courageous beginning, and the whole way through she hasn’t let go of who she is and her heart towards others. That’s the opposite of self-indulgent. That’s the work of a faithful heart pursuing a dream. It’s hard work. It’s bold work. It’s inspiring work. It’s work that gives rather than takes. Like Emily P. Freeman says, it’s about entering a room and instead of saying “Here I am!”, you’re saying “There you are. I made this for you.” When is the last time you dreamed with that kind of passion and focus? The kind that requires hard work, time, fire, a heart for others, and then comes true.

That’s the kind of life I want to live, so I’ve been working on my dreams. They’re still somewhat vague which is a place that my personality loves and prefers to be, but it’s not a place that actually gets much done. I had to put some concrete words and actions to them, so I told a couple people that I was ready to write again. Then…I sat down and wrote. And I’m under no illusions here, I am rusty. These posts have not been everything I wanted them to be, still I am putting in the practice that this takes and fueling that spark of passion in my soul. It’s not selfish or self-indulgent in motivation, and it takes a lot of responsibility and faithfulness to show up to the computer on a regular basis to write. That’s the hard work part.

The brave part? It’s putting this out there. It’s sharing a dream of mine with you, even if it’s a dream not completely realized. Even if it’s something I’m not great at just yet. But it’s something that makes me feel more like myself, and that’s sort of the point of a dream anyway.

What’s a dream that you have?
Be brave and share it.
Find a thing that makes your soul come alive, and do the thing.
Dream well.
Dream often.
Dream big.
Do it in love.

promise fulfilled

Monday, May 20, 2019

On a winter’s day this year, I logged on to my computer to check my eldest daughter’s recent team roster to see if I remembered any of the kids from last season. I started reading down through the list and caught my breath as I recognized one of the names. Not from last year. This little girl — young lady now — was, with her brother, the very first child to enter our home when we started foster care ten years ago. Ten years since I’d seen her or spoke to her apart from a passing sighting once at a doctor’s office a couple years after they lived with us. My hands and voice were literally shaking as I told my husband. His reaction seemed quite a bit different from mine. He smiled. I nearly had a panic attack.

The next time I picked up my daughter from practice, I scanned the girls coming out into the parking lot to see if I could get a glimpse of her. It was weeks until their first game, and as that approached, I got more and more anxious about what it was going to look like. I knew for sure I would lay eyes on her at the game, and I wasn’t sure at all what that would feel like in the moment.

Why? It took me months to put an answer to why this affected me so deeply. 
What was I so scared of? My reactions for one. Could I hold it together when I saw her for the first time?
My failures? Most definitely. Looking back now, I think this was the deepest fear that I was battling when I imagined coming face to face with the beginning of this journey - what if somehow, some way it brought me face to face with some kind of failure? The previous two years have brought me face to face with some fairly intense failures, whether factual or perceived, and I wasn’t sure my heart could handle it again.

I wanted her to remember me — this little girl who, months later, still remembered everything about the day we picked her and her brother up from that doctor’s office waiting room. She watched me get ready in my bedroom the very last day she was with us, and casually just throws out, “I love those earrings. You wore them the day we moved to your house.” Then followed it up with virtually every detail of that day. First and last days make a mark.

I didn’t want her to remember me — this little girl who had endured such trauma in the days and weeks before coming to live with us. I didn’t want her to remember those months of cautious behavior, so cautious that as a preschooler I only had to correct her behavior one time during the months she lived with us. I didn’t want her to remember that first night when I knelt with her beside the window and followed her instructions to help her wish on a star. I didn’t want her to remember those subsequent nights when I sat for hours beside her bed, holding just her little hand because that was the only part of her she was willing to have me touch.

That first game day, there she was warming up with all the other girls. I made an excuse to call to my daughter so the girls could all see me and who I belonged to. Was there a flicker of recognition? I couldn’t tell. She was there with her mom, whom I actually never met while they lived with us. They both looked good. She seemed funny, like there was a spunky attitude behind the game play. She looked amazing. Grown up. The same.

I sat through that whole day and held myself together. I came home and sobbed. There’s something about coming face to face with someone who only knew you for one very specific period of time, a long time ago. As if you are coming face to face with a previous version of yourself. I was scared to see who she was now, but I think I was even more scared to see who I was then. Were her memories of me good? Were they awful? We knew nothing when we started doing this. I would have done so many things differently now. I would’ve been more aware of how little kids process trauma. I would have known better parenting techniques. I would have not focused as much on how this huge life change was affecting me and instead put all of that reflection into how to better love those children. I don’t think we did a bad job, but I’m not sure how good of one we did. I just prayed she knew that even though I might not have known then how to help her heal, I still loved her intensely.

I debated all season whether to talk to her mother. Whether to talk to her. I decided against talking to her unless I talked to her mother first. I decided against talking to her mother. Well, it was less of a decision and more of a failure to act, I guess, but the whole season passed without a word being said between us. I didn’t want her to remind her of trauma, but I also didn’t want her to think we had forgotten her. She probably has no idea that everything about her is imprinted on my memory forever.

I want to tell her about the night we returned them for good to their family. How we came home and all four of us huddled on the bed she slept on and wept and mourned as a family because we loved them so deeply. I want to tell her that we fought for her - not to stay, but to go home. We knew without a doubt that she belonged with her family. I want to tell her that I’m sorry for the things we missed. I want to tell her that she changed my life. I want to tell her that she changed my daughter’s life. That a passion for this kind of life was born in our own sweet girl during those days that burns brighter than even mine some times. I want to tell her how much it meant to our daughter that her four-year-old playmate became her fourteen-year-old playmate. How special it was. How life-affirming it was. How motivating it was.

I dreamed about her last night. In my dream, I had not kept quiet the whole season. I had written a letter. I had told her all the things in my heart. I delivered it via her mom. Her mom gave me permission to go ahead and talk to her, and left for work. We played Uno while I considered what to say. We went on a drive where I imagined I would speak to her in person, but instead we spent our day navigating bomb threats in this town of my dreams. I protected her fourteen-year-old self the whole dream, swerving around explosions, helping the authorities disable the high-tech devices, and it doesn’t take any kind of dream genius to parallel that to the ways I had protected her four-year-old self from threats both real and imagined. Then true to life, my dream just flashed forward ten years. No explanation. I still hadn’t talked to her. I never did. My dream ended with a hug that was deeper than I could have imagined with all of the words I hadn’t yet said wrapped up in our arms, and we walked forward side by side into a restaurant.

Maybe I wasn’t brave enough to say real words in real life to this girl who changed my life, but the purpose of that promise that started in my heart with her ten years ago was revealed this year. It's quieter than I imagined. It’s lodged in a secret place of my heart rather than with in person declarations, but it’s a promise fulfilled nevertheless. What I’m learning now is that sometimes that’s enough.

too good

Monday, May 13, 2019

My oldest daughter, due to a variety of known and as of yet unknown issues, has been recommended for a root canal. Our dentist pled incapability because true to this daughter’s dramatic nature, the root for this particular tooth is “special” and requires more expert care. This is how we found ourselves in a waiting room of a dental office that clearly caters to the less financially privileged in our area for a second consultation.

An important part of this story is one that I typically don’t share. First, there are seven people in our family living on a single income, so it’s not like we’re rolling in money. In addition, tax laws are weird, and when you work for a church or non-profit, often the way you get paid is in allowances and stipends, which do not show up as actual income on your tax returns. Lastly, the way the ACA works is complicated, and if you’re forced to use the marketplace to find your insurance, they do not make it possible to just choose whatever you want because it’s all based on taxable income level. As a result, we find ourselves currently on state insurance with no other option, even though we truly desire it. The relevant part of this story is that when you have Medicaid (or Caresource, in our case), you are extremely limited in choice of providers. That pretty much catches you up to the reasons for which we found ourselves in this provider’s office.

After wading through the cigarette smoke in the parking lot, we found ourselves in a waiting room filling out laminated medical records with a dry erase marker, a first for me. Why were these clients not worthy of actual paper and pen? Unknown. We were ushered back eventually to a small room with two folding chairs. I’ve spent some time at our county courthouse, and this room felt for all the world like a holding cell outside out of chambers. Eventually we made it back to the procedure area. An open room, separated by half walls between the chairs, and every single wall was covered in plexiglass screwed on over the paint. It was, by far, the most interesting and demeaning office I’ve been in in some time.

And I struggled. I don’t belong here, I thought. My daughter doesn’t belong here. We are not the people that you need plexiglass walls for. When the assistant went behind us as we were leaving with her sanitizing spray, wiping down everything we touched or were near, I was vaguely humiliated, but also relieved that this doctor didn’t feel like he could take care of her tooth issue either. I wasn’t crazy about coming back here for an actual medical procedure. Onward to the state university for specialist care.

After I dropped my daughter back at school that day, I spent a lengthy amount of time feeling weird and sad. I was disgusted at the way I felt like we’d been treated – not that any person in that practice was mean or inappropriate; they were all extremely kind and generous. I was offended that we had to go there in the first place. I know there are fancy-pants dental surgeons in our area. We’re just not allowed to go to them because they don’t accept government insurance.

The whole time I’m working through these thoughts, it’s all touched with guilt. I profess to be someone who wants to show up for the marginalized. For the poverty-stricken. For the addicts. For the less fortunate. And I’m disgusted and humiliated because I’m too good for the dental care that they can receive? Seriously Suzanne?

How do we show up for the poor when we feel like we’re too good for them? You think people can’t figure that out? They know, friends. They know. Is that the kind of person I want to be? One who’s too good for the medical care that most of my neighbors receive?

What does it say about me when I’m willing and invested in “helping” the poor, but unwilling to be viewed as one of them? When I won’t wear certain things or appear in public a certain way for fear of looking “trashy”? When I internally recoil at plexiglass covered walls, toothless smiles, and an incredible stench from the person next to me at the dentist because I deserve better treatment than this? I want everyone to have access to appropriate medical and dental care, but I don’t want to have the same access they do. I want better. I’m not one of those people.

When I went to edit this piece, I was confronted again with my failings in this area. You know that whole awkward paragraph at the top where I explain that we have state insurance but we don’t really qualify for state insurance? That’s an unnecessary paragraph and poorly written at that. It’s nobody’s business why we have Medicaid, but I felt a compulsive need to explain it to you so you all know that while I might look like I’m one of the poor, I’m not actually one of those people. I want to take that paragraph out completely, but authenticity demands otherwise.

What’s wrong with being viewed as the poor? What’s wrong with qualifying for Medicaid? What’s wrong with wearing clothes that don’t match and don’t fit? What’s wrong with looking ‘trashy’? We say to judge people by their hearts, but that is not what we practice, not by a long shot. Why do I deserve better than plexiglass and plastic chairs that a dental assistance wipes down with bleach spray immediately after we leave?

I think the answer is self-evident. We think poverty is a moral failing. Oh, we may never say that, but our actions betray our true beliefs. We think that people in poverty have done something wrong. We scrunch our noses at certain lifestyles. We make memes about people and how they dress when they shop at Walmart. We talk about the people in the food pantry line who have their cigarettes and tattoos as if we know how they should best be spending their lives and their money even when we have no actual knowledge of their lives OR their money. We do everything we possibly can to avoid being associated with the people that we profess to care for. We move to different areas of town so we don’t have to have those kind of neighbors. We attend different churches. We ship our kids to different schools. We choose the fancier doctors and dentists, and God forbid that we ever drive down those streets. ESPECIALLY in the dark.

If we’re a part of church culture, we talk about being ‘missional’ and ‘evangelistic’ and all the code words we use to indicate that we’re the other in this scenario. People are a project, a problem to be solved, a pedestal for us to use to talk about how service-minded we are. We talk about loving our neighbor, even down to the nitty-gritty, but not a one of us wants to be viewed AS the neighbor.

And friends, if this is our attitude, we’re never ever going to be truly loving. Love means there is no ‘other’. Love means we give dignity. Love means we’re in this all together. Love means each soul has equal worth. Our actions betray our true hearts, which aren’t all that loving at all.

Pope Francis, shortly after taking office, said, “I want us to be a church that is poor and is for the poor”.
We’re all on board with the ‘for the poor’ part. The ‘is poor’ part? Pass us by, thanks.

I wish I had something pithy and tweetable and Christian-y to wrap this all up with so we all feel better about ourselves and our life choices. But sometimes, as a friend says, we need to sit in the suck with each other. Here’s what I know today about myself: I’m not great. I’m not noble. I’m not anything but a woman who wants to be different. Who wants to willingly open her heart and her home to anyone who wants to enter, regardless of how I feel about them. Who wants to accept the services that the masses receive without feeling gross or dirty or better than. Kindness, compassion, grace, mercy – those are the words I want to define my life. That’s the kind of woman I want to be, and yet I find myself so far away most days.

I think there’s no better way to close than borrowing the words from one of my very favorite books, Tattoos on the Heart. Father Gregory Boyle says this all better than I ever could, and he describes the life I want to live.

“No daylight to separate us. 
Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away. The prophet Habakkuk writes, “The vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and it will not disappoint…and it if delays, wait for it. ”Kinship is what God presses us on to, always hopeful that its time has come.”

No daylight to separate us.
Make my life this prayer.

ten years ago

Monday, May 6, 2019

Ten years ago, I opened this space with the intent of making it a record of the time we spent in the world of foster care. I called it Expecting Hope. People named their blogs cutesy things in those days, and I wanted to play on the traditional ‘expecting a baby’ theme. And I was sincerely hopeful at that point. Heartbreakingly hopeful.

We had worked through hours of training, home visits, and paperwork. We had learned what we thought we needed to know. We had “prepared” our two children, our family, our friends. We were expectant. We were passionate about this step. We were full of determination and irrepressible faith that love wins. We were naïve.

Ten years ago, on this exact day, we got an afternoon call from the county.
 ·Would you be willing to take a sibling group? There’s two children, 4 and 2, in need of a home right now, and there’s a baby in the hospital that might get to go home next week. We’ll call the baby ‘optional’.
·We aren’t even licensed yet.
·You will be in 20 minutes.

With pounding hearts and sweaty hands, we drove to the doctor’s office and picked up two terrified little kids. We signed the placement papers in the middle of that waiting room, with what felt like all of our little city looking on, and then we placed these two kids in car seats in our back seat to drive home. That was it. They weren’t ours, they didn’t come with instructions, and we were released with a vague reminder that someone would contact us within 7 days to visit them.

Ten years ago, I was about to turn 30, I was planning a big party, and as a firm believer in birthday week, this placement seemed like the perfect way to kick off the next decade of my life. Three days later, after going from two to four children overnight, after long sleepless nights, after a phone call to the county telling them that that “optional” youngest sibling was an option we had to say no to, after every night sitting on the green linoleum in my tiny bathroom and sobbing, I decided that instead of my hopeful savior-dreams of what this would all be like, that this was maybe the worst birthday of my life.

We had no idea what we were doing. We knew approximately 0% of what being a foster parent was like and what we should do and what trauma does to a child and how our parenting needed to change. I wish we had been better prepared. I wish that I had had more than my instincts to help those children heal. I wish I had been ten years older and ten years wiser ten years ago.

This year, I’m going to turn 40 in 3 days. I’m still a firm believer in birthday week, and I have never looked forward to a birthday as much as this one. We’ve gone anywhere from two to seven children and every number in between in the past decade, and for now, we seem to have settled at five. I sit in a different bathroom and cry some nights, but it’s not every night anymore; those tears are harder to come by these days. I’ve given up on any white savior dreams I had, and hope looks different than it used to.

This year, when we got a call a few weeks ago from the county asking us if we’d take a sibling group, instead of saying yes, I had to tell our worker that we had just sent in our renewal letter with a different checked box than the previous years: “We do not wish to renew our foster care or adoptive license”. And so, as of today, our home is officially ‘closed’ in the eyes of the county.

This year, I still have this corner of the internet, and I haven’t written here in two years for a myriad of reasons that simultaneously crept up on me and caught me by surprise. It’s not called Expecting Hope anymore; sappy names and most of the blogs that went with them have almost entirely disappeared from culture. This world is different than it was ten years ago, and so am I. I don’t know if I’m expecting anything these days. Most of the time I don’t know what I believe about very much at all. All that naïve hopefulness has been pummeled until all the shiny edges have worn clean off. I might still have faith that love wins in the end, but now I know that in many very real ways, it’s not enough.

Even so there’s something brewing in my soul.

It looks vastly different than it did ten years ago.
It’s softer and gentler, yet stronger and more realistic.
It’s darker than anything I’ve ever known before, but I’ve learned to be at home in the dark, and the light that breaks through is that much brighter for its lack.
It’s more spacious than I ever imagined possible, but the underpinnings still are held firm by justice and truth.
Some might call this all dangerous, but to be honest, I’ve found safety to be a pretty shaky foundation.
I move forward, compelled by love. I virtually have no other way to operate.
I don’t know where I’m headed right now, yet my spirit still knows it’s on the move, and my whole body hums with the rhythm.
I’m 40 years old this year, and hope is still my song.

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