Bird Box

(In my opinion, this post doesn’t contain spoilers for Bird Box, but if you haven’t watched it and don’t want to know anything about it before you watch, go read someone else’s blog.) 

I watched Bird Box last night despite my aversion to suspenseful movies. Maybe it was all the motherhood-themed memes on the internet referencing scenes from it. Maybe it was because I’ve loved Sandra Bullock since The Net. Maybe it was just that I had a rough day and I was feeling a little reckless and watching TV in bed and eating Ben and Jerry’s is my version of acting out these days. I dunno. But I stuck it out and watched it, flipping screens between the movie and Facebook during the really scary and more graphic parts.

I don’t want to be a Negative Nellie, but honestly, there were some themes in it that bugged me, and like a true American, it’s my duty to tell the internet. 

For those of you who haven’t watched it, the basic storyline is that people around the world become inexplicably compelled to commit suicide. They see something invisible to others and they violently kill themselves, immediately. 

Sandra Bullock’s character, Mallory, and her children manage to survive after they learn the key is to be blindfolded and quiet at all times. One of the opening scenes is her fiercely warning the children to stay quiet and to always keep their blindfolds on. She delivers it in a manner similar to orations I’ve given my children about how to behave while in the grocery store: Eye to eye, in simple language, telling them their life depends on their obedience. 

Here’s where I start to have some issues. 

The kids in the story have been raised since birth in an extremely stressful environment. They’ve never known anything other than blindfold-or-die life. Under such extreme stress, their mother, Sandra Bullock/Mallory, has seemingly failed to bond with them. She physically protects them and cares for them, but she was a reluctant mother from the beginning and nurturing took a backseat to survival. Understandable. I don’t want to spoil the movie, but the theme of a mother’s deep and sacrificial love is present. I can understand why people find it inspiring. Part of me does too. But a larger part of me, the part of me that has parented under extreme stress (not suicide-epidemic level stress, but nonetheless fear-of-losing-my children-and-the-aftermath-stress) takes issue with perpetuating the idea that experiencing trauma gives you super-human ability to do heroic things and persevere. 

It just doesn’t. Not usually.

Life- and safety-threatening situations, particularly when experienced over a prolonged period of time, damage the brain. These situations don’t create steely resolve and fortitude, they heighten cortisol levels and create unhealthy neural pathways in children AND parents. They decrease one’s ability to self-regulate and stay calm under stress. 

So when I see two children being told sternly to behave-or-die and they chose to behave, I call bullshit. 

When I see a mother, who has only parented under brain-damaging stress, being depicted as having an invisible and innate inner bond to her children so strong she will do anything for them, I call bullshit. 

Maternal (and paternal for that matter, but it’s a movie about a mom) bonding takes intentional work sometimes. A lot of it. We want to believe a maternal bond is innate and unbreakable. And under the best circumstances, maybe it can be. 

But I also believe that perpetuating this idea that there’s an innate and ever-present, ever-flowing stream of maternal goodness and self-sacrifice is harmful to women. Just because we can do it, doesn’t mean it’s good for us. 

I opened this post with a reference to me eating ice cream in bed while watching Netflix after a hard day. This is the type of “mommy breakdown” that is acceptable to share. “Me time” is all the rage. Self-care is the new black. Face masks and pedicures will heal our weary souls, Instagram tells me.

I’m calling bullshit on myself. 

I’ve been told my vulnerability is a gift so here goes: No amount of Netflix or charcoal masks is going to fill the incredible internal deficit 12 years of stressful mothering has created in me. Endless self-sacrifice has not given me superpowers. It has damaged me. I’m tired and bitter and on “good mother” auto pilot most of the time. I do what’s right to look good to the outside. 

There has to be a better way. We are worth a better way. I don’t know exactly what that way looks like. I am still working on it. My “superpowers” fail to create an easy solution for the weary and empty-souled mothers I encounter so often. All I can do is listen to their stories and offer mine.

All this to say, if you can relate to any of this please know: You are not blindfolded, feeling your way through the forest, children at your sides. I’m out here. We’re out here. Let’s sort it out together. 

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The Farmer’s Luck

Monday evening, after a full day of work+kids+ongoing renovation house stuff, I got a text from a friend saying she’d seen our former foster daughter at the local grocery store buffet dinner on “kids eat free” night. 

I’ve been blog-silent for a long time. So I haven’t mentioned that from March 2017-August 2017, we fostered a 2 year old girl. 

She had thin blond hair and tired blue eyes. She was so soft. 

I’ll call her ZZ. 

ZZ came the same day I got back from a trip to Haiti. ZZ came the month I started a new business. ZZ came during one of the darkest periods I’ve had in my 13 year marriage. 

On paper, it was perfect. We wanted to adopt another girl; she had birth parents who weren’t even trying. After 6 years of on-going foster care drama and then finally adopting LLM and Babygirl, a straightforward adoption seemed like just the thing. 

Except it’s not a thing. There is no “straightforward” adoption from foster care. Adopting from foster care is painful. It’s long and it hurts everyone involved. 

We spent the first couple months adjusting. Re-creating bedtime routines with two little girls. Packing 5 lunches instead of 4. Waiting to fall in love with a new little person. 

Hoping. 

Surviving. 

Then things turned dark.

In June Mark and I started whispering to each other “This doesn’t feel right.” 

By July, we were screaming it. 

We thought, “Maybe once she’s adopted it will get better.” But I knew better than to walk down that aisle full of doubt. A piece of paper doesn’t fix things. It just makes them permanent. 

On a hot July morning, with wet grass under my feet, while ZZ played nearby in a pink baby pool, I called her social worker and said, “I can’t do this.” 

Five weeks later, she woke from her nap and I packed up her still-warm stuffed animals into a duffel bag. An hour later she was gone. 

In the months that passed, I was both relieved and devastated. What sort of person can’t love a child? LLM’s behavior was worse than hers ever was. It wasn’t that. Why couldn’t I do this? 

I started anti-depressants and got really distracted. Mark and I would hash out those 6 months over and over and speculate what went wrong. But at the end of the day, all I could cling to was the marrow-deep knowledge that she wasn’t mine. Whatever that meant; she just wasn’t mine.

I hated that I felt this way. I’ve done this before, I told myself. I love kids who didn’t start as mine. I made them mine. I don’t believe blood is thicker than water. Love makes a family, so wtf is wrong with me?! If only I were better, stronger, more spiritual, mentally- healthier, less career-minded, softer-hearted, less selfish, and on and on and on…

Over weeks and months I’d get sporadic updates about how she was doing and where she lived. Another foster family. With an aunt. Back with her mom.

Slowly I mostly forgave myself for whatever part I played in her displacement. For agreeing to take her when our family had no margin and when I should have been wise enough to predict how it would go. 

For failing her. 

Then yesterday, my friend texted that she saw ZZ at the grocery store buffet. That ZZ looked happy and healthy and was clearly loved by her mother. My friend talked to ZZ’s mother (God bless her boldness cuz that could’ve been awkward as heck!)  She said she knew ZZ from when she was in foster care with us and that she was happy to see her doing so well. ZZ’s mother told my friend that she had been deep in addiction when ZZ went into foster care. She told my friend that when ZZ went to us, with adoption on the horizon, that’s when she started to fight. 

While we were falling, she was rising. Slowly. Painfully. Beyond what I could see. 

“There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. 

“Maybe,” the farmer replied. 

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.

“Maybe,” replied the old man. 

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. 

“Maybe,” said the farmer.”

(Credit: http://www.katinkahesselink.net/tibet/zen.html)

I’d love to conclude with conviction that I always knew God was in complete control and my mistakes are for His glory. 

I can’t do that. 

I have to process, and hurt, and grow into something new. I have to doubt and yell and feel all the feelings. 

The past couple years have been rife with uncertainly, and pain, and deconstructing everything I thought I knew. It was not clean. It is not certain. 

I am the farmer, who can only say, 

“Maybe.” 

XOXOX

The Runaway

Today was LLM’s preschool picnic. It did not go great, but we survived. His preschool is near our house and it is a nice day, so the kids biked. When we left the picnic to ride home (LLM and BabyGirl on bikes, me walking) LLM rode ahead…he rode waaayyy ahead. He actually rode all the way home…It is about 3/4 of a mile on a bike path…that crosses a busy road. And he crossed it. Alone.

When I arrived home, breathless with blistered feet from running in flip flops, he was in the house, completely calm, bike in the garage. I had been about 10 seconds from calling 911 and telling them my 6 year-old was missing.

I took my time calming myself before trying to talk to him about what had happened. I reminded him of our biking rules. I reminded him about cars and the busy road. I told him I was scared he could have wrecked and I wouldn’t have been there. When I said these things to him, he went into a rage. “There were no cars!” “I forgot the rules!” “I was thirsty.” “I didn’t crash!” And on and on and on. He was furious. Throwing things, stomping, screaming til he sweat.

His obvious shameful feelings are heartbreaking, yet I know they do nothing to deter him from making the same mistake again. Or doing something else, equally dangerous, and that I know good-and-well he knows better than to do.

Knowing better and doing better are so separate in his brain sometimes, we have learned. Actions and consequences are disconnected. Impulsivity often reigns. When he is calm, like when I first got home to him, I think reality hits him and he is overwhelmed with the shame of his actions. He can’t deal with it. Me talking about it with him only heightens his sense of shame so he rages to avoid me. It’s a vicious cycle.

And that’s not even the hardest part. The hardest part is that in about 15 minutes he is going to wake up from a nap and I will need to treat him like it never happened. Not to say we won’t have some new boundaries for biking, but the terror I experienced running home, the anger I felt towards him, the frustration welling up as I relive it…I will need to tuck all that away. I will need to sweetly greet him and make him a snack. I will rub his back and make sure to make eye contact with him. We will pretend like it never happened.

He needs a clean record to escape his overwhelming shame. He needs a loving big person providing for his needs, affirming that he is good and safe and precious. He needs boundaries that he can be successful keeping. He needs forgiveness when he hasn’t asked for it. 

I do too. Loving him like I need to be loved reminds me of a God who extends mercy to me everyday.

I need this radical grace as much as he does because I’m every bit as much of a runway.  

“Words can’t describe the way it feels
When mercy floods a thirsty soul
The broke inside begins to heal
And grace returns what guilty stole

And in the shadow of that shame
Beat down by all the blame
I hear You call my name saying it’s not over
And my heart starts to beat so loud now
Drowning out the doubt
I’m down, but I’m not out

There’s a war between guilt and grace
And they’re fighting for a sacred space
But I’m living proof
Grace wins every time
No more lying down in death’s defeat
Now I’m rising up in victory
Singing, hallelujah

Grace wins every time”

Grace Wins by Matthew West

Changing the Script

So we gave homeschooling a try and turns out…it’s not for us. At least not at this time. There were some good parts, but overall it was not a good fit for the dynamics of our family. (This is the polite way of saying: it pretty much sucked all day er’ry day.)

It was a really tough decision to put the kids back in school. I felt like a failure. I felt like a quitter. I worried what people would think. I spent lots of time berating myself…telling myself that I am rash. That I am fickle. That I am weak. Asking myself if another mom, a better mom, could handle this thing that I couldn’t. I made a list in my head of the ways that if I could change, maybe I could make this homeschooling thing work. The kids liked homeschooling….so that meant I was the problem. If only I could be more patient, more creative, more disciplined…if only I wasn’t so…..me, then it would work.

And then one day, driving down a road I drive down most every day, a thought hit me:

What if what I’m telling myself is not the truth? What if I’m exactly what they need?

What if instead of telling myself I am fickle, I praise God that He made me willing to try new things until we find the one that works.

What if instead of telling myself I am weak, I acknowledge thankfulness for a community with great schools and dedicated teachers who welcomed my boys back and made them feel as if they’d never left. I recognized that what we were doing at home was not sustainable, and I sought help. That’s not weakness, that’s strength.

What if instead of berating myself for being rash, I trust my instincts and feel good about making the changes I know are for the better.

And what if instead of wondering if a better mom could do all that I can’t, I trust that the God who made something from nothing, who organized the elements into living, breathing creatures, didn’t make a mistake when He gave my kids to me. It wasn’t chance that landed me as LLM’s mom any more than it was chance that made the heavens and the earth.

I am exactly what they need.  My abilities, even my weaknesses, and their needs are perfectly matched.

Dear mommas….you are exactly what they need. You. Not an improved version of you. You, how God has gifted you specifically. Even what you might view as your weaknesses, God can use them for good, and He promises to do exactly that. 

Change the script in your head. You can do this. I promise.

One Year

Dear LLM,
One year ago I put on a white dress and walked up the big hill to the
courthouse. I spoke the second most-important “I do” I have said in my
life. One year ago was a day I waited for, prayed for, and will never
forget. One year ago, we adopted you.

If I woke up this morning, and the past four and a half years were
erased-the hardest 1642 days of my life so far-I would scrambled to
begin them again. I have lost nothing I wouldn’t trade for you in a second.

You are the strongest, bravest person I know and you are 5! Imagine
what the future will bring.

Tomorrow you will put on your Spider-Man costume, carry your pink
plastic pumpkin (you love pink!) and go door-to-door asking our
neighbors for candy. It is your favorite day of the year.

It is mine too, but not because of the candy. I will remind you it’s your
adoption day, and you will run past me, onto your next adventure.

All is as it should be.

I love you, my darling boy.

The Promise of the Feast

A few weeks ago, I was pretty sure I was pregnant. 

The thought kept me up at night and I lay in bed googling “signs of early pregnancy” and wondering how life would change if my hunch was right. How would we do it? And what would people think? Particularly after I have spent the past couple months telling the internet what a rough time I’m having with the kids that I already have. Would people think we are irresponsible? Crazy? Stupid?

And how would I manage? The months of puking that accompany pregnancy for me. Followed by the years of interrupted sleep. My attention spread between 5 baby birds, all with mouths wide open, all so urgently needy. And what would another baby do to my marriage? So many days I have so little left to give to the man who loves me so well…could we do it all again? Could we manage?

How would I have enough?…

Tonight we got home late after dinner at our friends’ house. It was nearly 10pm and as we were rushing the kids to bed, the big boys began complaining that they were hungry. They headed towards the pantry for their go-to snack-granola bars-and were upset when I shooed them from the kitchen and told them to go downstairs to their beds. My oldest looked at me dejected, snaggle-toothed in the way 9 year-olds are, eyes red from pool water, hungry like a teenager even though he still sits on my lap some times. He whined, “It’s just that I’m so hungry.” 

“I know.” I said. “Now go downstairs to your bed.” Reluctantly he obeyed. I followed him down, past his room and to the storage room. I went in, and took a Costco box of granola bars down from the shelf, opened it, and took one to him in his bed. 

“The box in the pantry was empty. You didn’t think I’d send you to bed hungry, did you?” I asked him with a smile.

Is this not how I am with my God? I cry that I am empty forgetting He is the storeroom. I fear a future wherein I run out, forgetting His promises.

I wasn’t pregnant.

But on Labor Day afternoon the our phones rang.  “A 10 year-old boy and a 7 year-old girl need a place to stay, tonight. Can you take them?”

We talked for about 5 min and called back with our answer, “Yes.”

But to look to the seeds and believe He will feed us? When what he gives doesn’t look like near enough? When it looks like less than a handful instead of a plateful, a year full, a life full. When it looks inedible. 

These seeds, are they food? It looks like a bit of a joke.

To hand someone seeds for his swelling, panging starvation, and ask him to believe in a feast? Is this what everyday faith is? 

Behold! For those who have learned to see-He gives, He gifts. He gifts with seeds as small as moments, grace upon grace, and the unlikely here and now, it shall sustain you, feed you.  Do not distain the small.  The promise of feast is within the moments. Our enough is always in the now because He never leaves us.” -Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts Devotional

Follow up: The kids we were asked to take were able to stay with a friend of their family. For their sake, this is preferable to them being placed with strangers, such as ourselves. We look forward to the next time we can say “Yes.”

I’m Going Soft

When driving around with the kids, I typically have my radio set to one of our local Christian radio stations. It seems like they have less commercials than other stations, my six year-old loves to sing along, and I get annoyed if I’m trying to listen to the news or a story on NPR and the kids keep interrupting with questions/fighting/general neediness. So Christian radio it is.

It has been an ongoing joke between my husband and me. The songs are pretty repetitive and sometimes the talk is…well, pretty hokey. I know they are trying to “keep it clean” but sometimes my cheese-o-meter starts going off during some of the banter between the radio hosts.

But lately it has been getting to me.

A few weeks ago I heard a song I really liked and wanted to know who the artist was, so I pulled out my smart phone and used the Shazam app to identify the tune. Much to my surprise and chagrin, the song was by Michael W. Smith.

What.the.what?!  (It was Sky Spills Over, if you are curious.)

“Get it together, Mary!” I thought to myself.  

But it’s happening more and more. Yesterday, even the hokey banter got me all teared up. The host was talking about dropping his daughter off at college and I lost my stuff driving down Third St.  Not that I have a heart of stone, but I generally find this particular host super-annoying and overly dramatic.  Apparently now I love that kind of crap.

And it’s not just the radio. Recently during church worship I’ve experienced a phenomenon I’ll call “Desire to Dance while Waving my Hands and Crying.” What is happening to me?!

The biggest change I’ve noticed is that this time last year I was counting down the minutes to back-to-school. The thought crossed my mind to put the baby in daycare and go back to work full-time. I was ready for a change.

And I got one. But it is not at all what I expected.

Next week, we will begin homeschooling. My kids, all my kids, will be with me ALL.THE.TIME. Last year, I think this would have made me want to breathe into a paper bag. This year, I can’t imagine it being any different.  

I want to be with them. Sure, they often drive me nuts and I constantly feel overwhelmed with LLM’s behavior and Baby Girl’s todderliness, but I’m not trying to escape.

I’m leaning in.

And the only explanation I can give is that God has softened my heart towards my kids. He has changed my desire and I am so thankful.

I’m going soft.

And I am so grateful.