A Full Heart

BochairThis guy turns six-years-old today. My heart can hardly stand it. He’s been ours nearly as long as he wasn’t and I still well up to think about what that means. The magnitude of adoption leaves me breathless even as the mundane of it makes me shake my head. How can something so life changing, so utterly profound, be in reality, so completely ordinary?

As always, I remember with prayer his birth mama. May she be well today and know he’s loved.

I remember with huge smiles and much love and gratitude his foster mama today, too. I’ll never forget her showing us pictures of his third birthday. BobootsA picture of a cake flashed on the screen. Puzzled, I looked at Shawn, “Is that cake shaped like a shoe?” Clearly, I did not yet know my boy. But she did. And cared enough to make him a cake shaped like the one thing he loves best in all the world. I have no words.

He has overcome so much and continues to amaze and bless us each and every day. His new fabulousness is calling Shawn from the other room with, “Dad? Daaaaad!” And my personal favorite response to each request with, “Okay,” even as he fails to actually comply with said request.

BobusHe loves kindergarten and is thrilled to don his backpack and trot out to the bus every morning. He returns every afternoon with a huge smile. I think he was actually offended when we let him play hooky last week and took him to the state fair with the rest of the family. He would’ve much preferred to go to school.

We finally found the right meds for sleeping and he is thriving with a full night’s sleep (as are his parents). He has not had any recurrence of ear issues since February. Probably due to both of those, he no longer has negative behaviors that plagued him for so long, either. My arms are bruise-free, and the house has been mostly free from flying objects for quite awhile. BomouthHe’s still a little guy, but a recent growth spurt has him now wearing size 4T and looking quite the little boy versus the toddler he seemed for so long.

His therapists confide that he’s their favorite which shouldn’t shock me, but knowing the lengths we came to get here, really does surprise and delight me. BoarmThe boy who once avoided all interaction, who averted eyes from contact, who ignored all attempts at connection is now charming strangers with his sweet smile and knuckle bumps and it’s amazing.

I share our story in hopes that it might encourage someone out there to realize that maybe adoption is not the giant, terrifying leap you once thought. Maybe it’s just a conscious choice toward an incredible, yet ordinary life.

And maybe, without you, a child doesn’t have a prayer of experiencing a life like that. 

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Abortion and The Myth of the Unwanted Child

Abortion. The topic immediately polarizes. Hackles are raised and you, as a reader, are waiting to be either irritated or relieved by what I’ll say next. Am I on your side or am I wrong? Because in this politicized, highly sound-bitten world, sides are what we’re left with in discussing individual lives and impossible choices.

It shouldn’t be.

I’m very open about being a follower of Christ. I have personally been on the receiving end of eight positive pregnancy tests and given birth seven times. It should surprise no one that if I had to choose a side it would be pro-life.

And yet, I almost cringe at that moniker, so filled with loaded political baggage I am loathe to embrace. Author Rachel Held Evans wrote a post a few years ago on this topic. While I disagreed with some of what she wrote, it resonated strongly with me because of all I did agree with that had been previously unwritten. I get frustrated when the pro-life side seems only interested in banning abortions and actively seeks to undermine programs that would likely stem demand, for example free contraceptives, low cost healthcare, non-abstinence based sex education, subsidized childcare, etc.

But, I digress.

I want to address a pro-choice slogan that I hear bandied about that no one seems to dispel, on either side. That of “every child a wanted child.” The pro-choice side likes to insist that if a child is not wanted at conception, he is going to end up a statistic of abuse. The pro-life answer to this is “adoption” as if that’s always a happy ending all tied up in a bow and not a potential minefield fraught with complication, loss, and heartache all its own.

Abortion is in the news again and I keep reading comments that it’s better for women to abort than for these kids to grow up abused. Never mind the logic that death is preferable to abuse which must surely rankle abuse survivors, I want to know why we just accept that thinking.

Why are we all so quick to accept that women who are very unhappy to find the line turn pink on the pregnancy test will, of course, become unfit mothers should they carry to term?

Because that’s crap. 

Yes, children are abused. Miserable, sometimes sick and twisted, sometimes just overwhelmed and unsupported, parents abuse children all the time. It is heart wrenching.

But conversely, women are devastated by positive pregnancy tests all the time, and for various reasons, continue to term and simply become mothers. No negative statistics, no fanfare, no CPS investigations…just moms.

I’ve had eight positive pregnancy tests. Three of those times, I was very unhappy with the results. (UpcycleDaddy and I really stink at birth control.) My very first pregnancy was a complete surprise. We’d been married two years and I had mono. When I returned to work an older co-worker of mine asked how I was feeling. I told her I was feeling better, but the nausea was getting worse. She looked me in the eye and informed me, “Mono doesn’t cause nausea.” Oh dear. Surprise!Mickbikini

We were married, sure, and I had a good job. I didn’t want a baby then, but we wanted to be parents eventually, So we figured it out. Even though I was deathly ill and lost weight. And we lived in a one-bedroom apartment and I thought you had to have way more space for a baby (you don’t.) Even if I had believed abortion was an option, I doubt I would’ve considered it. But, never one to suffer silently, I expressed displeasure about pregnancy in general and that pregnancy in particular at every turn. Once she arrived, however, I was crazy smitten. My co-workers, reluctant witnesses to my miserable pregnancy, later admitted to being shocked by my sudden maternal joy. She was delighted in, adored, spoiled, and never abused. She’s eighteen now and will soon leave home to be an urban missionary with ServeSeattle.

The second unfavorable positive happened when our second child was only seven-months-old. Looking back, I now realize I had post-partum depression, but nobody ever talked about it then. The babies were going to be only fifteen months apart. I was reeling. I was already in a fog from the depression, and this sent me into shock for weeks. The shock returned when I went for an appointment at eleven weeks to find no heartbeat. My doctor allowed me time to miscarry naturally and it was so much more painful physically and emotionally than I expected. The amount of tissue and blood loss were another surprise. The guilt was worse. My theology was a little screwy in those days and I thought somehow my displeasure at the pregnancy had killed my baby. I named him Spencer. If grief is an indicator, he was indeed loved, despite my initial misgivings.

Our third unfavorable positive is now my Keturah Joy. KJsunglassesShe’s four-and-a-half, a spitfire of goof, love, and sweetness. I wish I could give a glimpse of her to my then-self, the devastated mama of six, sobbing in the bathroom over that pink line. Forty-years-old, I had given everything I had to the care of our sixth child, Eon, who was only fourteen-months-old at the time of that test. He has Down syndrome and had turned my world upside down with his diagnosis. I had only gained weight since his birth, and with all his extra appointments and therapies, I’d had no time for exercise. I was in no physical shape to carry a child at my age. Plus, Eon probably wouldn’t be walking before the baby came. How could I handle carrying him, too?

What would this do to him? He needed so much from me. A baby would take too much of my time, attention, and energy away from him. And, frankly, what if this baby had special needs, too? I was forty. While I was less concerned with Down syndrome, other, more serious or even fatal conditions terrified me.

Then there were financial considerations. UpcycleDaddy had his own business and we were barely getting by. Our insurance policy with the extravagant deductible did not have maternity coverage. How in the world could we do this? Plus, logistically speaking, our small, three-bedroom house was already at capacity. We had three girls in one room and three boys in another.

Every new thought just brought on more tears. I was scared. Scratch that. I was terrified. When I get scared, I often get angry. So, I did. God got the full vent of that. Weirdly, I don’t remember UpcycleDaddy’s response to it all, but I’m sure he got an earful, too.

My point is, I could’ve been the poster child for a Planned Parenthood abortion. I had all the reasons and they were good ones. I had all the emotions to go with them. I did not want that baby.

But, I didn’t have an abortion, nor did I consider it at the time.

I went on to have a baby. Even though my doctor wanted to induce at thirty-nine weeks and I bawled and fought him because, “I’m not ready and I still have another week!” (because, even then, I was scared.) She was not a wanted child in the beginning and by current, accepted logic, she should not be wanted, still. But she is amazing and deeply loved, wanted, and adored.  EonKJShe and Eon are best friends and she has been the best thing for him. She has only known love. She has never been abused. She is delighted in, always.

I’m not here to talk about banning abortions or to say that because I had a happy ending they will all be happy, amen. I’m simply saying that a woman’s feelings about her pregnancy during her pregnancy are no indicator of what kind of mother she will be. To say otherwise, is undermining her strength, her integrity, her character, and her maternal fierceness. And it offends me as a woman, as a mother, to hear it bandied about as fact that if a child is not wanted during pregnancy it should be relinquished, one way or another, because we cannot trust its mother.

I call bullshit.

It’s okay, actually normal, to be scared, terrified even, when faced with a positive pregnancy test. The fear of the unknown is an equalizer among us. All of us have it. Every pregnancy is the great unknown, no matter how planned. There are things beyond our control. Wonderful, amazing, terrifying things. Some of them are called “children.” We cannot know in advance exactly what blessings or challenges each will bring to our lives. We can only know with certainty they will bring both.

Don’t let either crowd tell you that you are destined for failure because of your fear. You are not. You can rise above. You can let love win. You have strength they’ve never seen. You have depth, and creativity, and resourcefulness and you can do this! Let me be the one person to tell you that you have what it takes to do this mama gig. Just because your child didn’t start out a “wanted child,” does not mean you won’t adore him later.

I’ve written and rewritten and erased these thoughts countless times over the last four years. I’ve never gotten them just right. They’re not right, still. But, I’m hitting “publish” on this post because it needs to be said. I’m tired of the lies that undermine us and tell us we are weak. I’m tired of seeing fear prey on vulnerability and win.

Because fear is always harder than reality. Because love really does win. Because you are fierce. Because there is grace for that.

Two Years My Son

Two years ago, we did what, at the time, seemed like the bravest, craziest, scariest thing. We left our seven children in the care of various people, flew across the world to a strange land, and claimed an unknown orphan as our own.

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We look at that act now and think, “Duh. Of course we did. How else could we have gotten our Bo?”

Funny thing about the unknown. It always looks bigger than reality. It makes me wonder what things I have missed out on, dismissed out of hand because they looked too big, too scary. How many times have I let fear win and missed the “duh”? But, this time, I didn’t. I tear up just thinking about all the times I almost walked away.

It didn’t make any sense. We already had seven children, two of them still in diapers. We were packed into this tiny house like sardines as it was, with no financial plans or means to move anytime soon. I’m not terribly organized and it was a lot of paperwork to pull together and a lot of deadlines to meet. It was also a lot of money we didn’t have.

Through all of that, the one moment where I felt the most vulnerable to throwing in the towel was in Chicago O’Hare, ten minutes before boarding our flight to Frankfurt where we would board the plane to our final destination, Belgrade. After a terribly bumpy flight from Indy and a ridiculously long layover, I sat in the tiny waiting area listening to my fellow passengers speak languages foreign to me, and became suddenly aware of how foolish this all seemed. I felt very small and afraid. I checked Facebook one more time and saw my dear friend, Melody, had commented this:

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” Isaiah 43:2

It was a balm to my soul and just what I needed to get me on that plane. Oh, I’m so glad I did!

firstmeetWhile I loved him instantly upon meeting him, it was a protective, only-because-he’s-mine kind of love. I was worried about his health from his noisy wheezing, and I was so grieved for everything he’d already lost and was about to lose by becoming ours. While great gain, adoption is loss, first. We were delighted that we were able to be his Plan B, but I was heartbroken that he needed one.

bodadinsquareHe bonded to UpcycleDaddy very quickly. I think the tall, bald, gentle giant made him feel safe. I had less to offer given that I became ill with kidney stones and infection soon after we gained custody and hospitalized upon our return home. He didn’t sleep for the entire twenty-four hours of travel to Chicago, and finally slumped over on the small plane to Indy, completely missing the triumphant homecoming, two years ago today.

Sometimes, adoption is spoken of in fairy tale terms with rescues and heroes and happily ever afters.

I bought into that. The need of the orphan spoke to me. It speaks to me still, truth be told. I cannot abide by children without – without the love, support, care of a mother, without medical intervention, without anyone on their side. 

Reading blogs of other families who’ve walked a similar road set me up for some expectations. I saw how those former-orphans, now beloved sons and daughters seemed to thrive with the love of a family, making great strides. I saw the milestones and firsts celebrated in cyberland.

And I wanted that.

I wrote this last year to a fellow adoptive mom whose journey more closely mirrored my own:

Although I fell in love with our little guy instantly, I had high hopes that with the love of family and some therapy, he would make great gains. He has not. He still functions very much as a young toddler at four-years-old. I foolishly thought we could love him out of behaviors that are deeply ingrained and written somewhere in his brain. I follow the adoption journey of others and see the joyful pronouncements on Facebook of all the firsts and gains and, in trying moments, I have whispered in the dark, “We got a broken one.”

I did not have the grief or depression after Eon’s birth and Down syndrome diagnosis that you dealt with after [her daughter’s]. So imagine my surprise when all that hit after bringing home a child that I chose. This is not the child I imagined. He was what I expected initially, but I thought I could change him. Sigh. It always boils down to expectations, does it not?

I know from what you’ve shared that your adoption journey has been similar in some ways…moments of sweet breakthrough, followed by dark distance. No one has said the word, “autism” aloud, but I think it’s just a matter of time. Autism was the one thing I knew I couldn’t handle. Ha! I know you understand all this. I would go back tomorrow and bring him home again. But it has been far from the journey I anticipated it to be.

My expectations colored everything. They interfered with my ability to love the child I was given as I so desperately tried to push him to be the child I imagined.

It was, as is so much of my life, all about me.

I did so many things wrong over the last two years, I am amazed God ever allowed me to be his mother, in the first place. He deserved better. But slowly, He’s changed me. He’s helping me get over myself. Two years of very little sleep has taught me sacrifice. The first year, caring for a child that returned loving care with bruising pinches and pulled hair taught me the beauty of loving without expectation. Accepting the autism diagnosis that we finally did get, taught me how much prejudice I had toward disabilities that were outside my realm and that all lives have intrinsic value, no matter what labels are attached to them. Watching him struggle and then graciously accept unpleasant medical interventions, is teaching me acceptance of my own circumstances and to relinquish control to the One who knows better.

When people speak of adoption being redemption, I always thought they were referring to the child. But God’s cool like that. He knew which one of us really needed rescue.

bosnugglesHe helped me let go of the orphan child of my imagination and embrace Bo. I literally taught him to embrace me back and to snuggle and now it’s our favorite thing. He has truly become the child of my heart. And I love him with all of it, not the fantasy, not the ideal, not the expectation, but my Bo. (And I can say that with certainty as I had to interrupt the writing of this post to clean up a ginormous craptastrophe he painted while I thought he was napping, and still I wrote flowery words. Our life is so glam.)

There is no fairy tale or happily ever after in our story. There is only redemption (mine), beauty from ashes, and love.

And grace. It was grace that propelled me forward in the face of unbelievable fear and grace that changed my heart through my unimagined boy.

He’s my greatest “duh” and I can’t imagine life without him. He’s shown me that even when life goes against all expectations, there is grace for that. 

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Hospital Jesus

The radio preacher’s words echoed back to me, “Without Jesus in our Christmas season, we have no reason to celebrate.” I knew he was right and I was ashamed that in my haste to check things off my list, I’d neglected to even think about Jesus of late. As I headed into work, I determined to find Him in my Christmas, beginning that very evening.

Except when I finally got home, I discovered that the abscess behind our little Serb’s ear had doubled since the day before and was clearly not responding to the prescribed oral antibiotics. A quick call to the ENT confirmed my suspicion that an ER visit was in order. So much for Jesus, I thought wryly.

After UpcycleDaddy fed him a quick snack, the little dude excitedly handed me his shoes, convinced we were headed for some epic adventure. Poor kid. As is their policy, they got us in a room and seen almost immediately, the boorish doctor talking over me to his entourage and ignoring my insights into Bo’s medical history. I caught the eye of the staff member with the laptop as they filed out of the room behind him. “Left,” I said. “What?” she asked, startled. “He keeps saying it’s his right ear. It’s not. It’s his left. He should at least get that right,” I curtly responded. She smiled. “Got it.”

A nurse ushered us into a waiting room to wait for the CT scan. We waited, and waited, and waited. We used up every last entertaining item I brought plus everything I could make up to keep him occupied until the poor kid was just DONE. His behaviors escalated until Mama was DONE, too. After my arms were black and blue from pinches, my glasses had been knocked off multiple times, he’d thrown every item he could reach, and I’d re-plugged my phone into the wall for the thirty-seventh time, I finally soothed my over-tired boy with Christmas hymns as he snuggled on my lap. My favorite, Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, seemed to be his favorite, too. I laughed when the nurse returned and asked, “Is he always this good?”

Knowing my boy as I do, on the way to imaging I said, “I cannot imagine this being remotely successful.” I was stunned and immeasurably grateful to be completely proven wrong when he was told to lay still and he settled in and did just that for the entire scan. We returned to the awful waiting room and the nurse mercifully told me he could eat and drink. He made a colossal mess with a giant chocolate chip cookie I had in my bag and was much happier after he washed it down with a juice cup. He flicked the lights on and off and knocked all the magazines to the floor while I was cleaning up his mess. I was ready to throttle him, but managed to hold him on my lap and again soothe him with carols, instead.

The migraine that had been building just behind my left eye was full-blown by the time a new doctor now on shift came in with a slightly panicked air about him, mumbling something about ambulance transport to the children’s hospital, aggressive infection, eroding the bone. “I know he looks okay, but the CT scan shows he’s a very sick little boy.” The migraine fog pressed in heavier but I managed to ask some rational questions which seemed to be met with irrational answers. Later to my husband I dubbed that physician, “Dr. Chicken Little” because he seemed convinced the sky was falling. UpcycleDaddy was on his way and I was so grateful because I couldn’t seem to make sense of anything. Waiting for him, I remembered my quest to find Jesus in my Christmas. “Where are you, now?” I wondered.

Taken back to a room to start an IV, Bo was grateful for a change of scenery until four staff members gathered around to hold him down. He kicked, and cried, and wrestled while they poked and dug and poked some more. I stayed out of his line of sight and stroked his hair and prayed for mercy. Just as I opened my mouth to call them off and demand the pediatric professionals, the nurse who had been holding his legs and had only moments before switched places with the original poker, expertly drew a blood vial and started the IV. While Bo will never be a fan, he quickly became my new hero. Bo was more appalled with the stabilizing board they attached to his arm than with the entire ordeal and spent the next several hours devising new and successful ways to remove it, often with his toes.

I was told the ambulance ride was necessary because he needed IV antibiotics stat and could receive them in transport, only the infusion was completed before the ambulance arrived, negating the necessity. I tried to stop the insanity, but the wheels were already turning. I work in healthcare. Common sense has little place there, a truth that invites madness. The delight on Bo’s face as he was loaded into the ambulance may have been worth the crazy and the wasted healthcare dollars. His eyes were huge and, once I climbed aboard with him, his smile matched them.

The newness worn off, the questions answered for the forms, and my head still pounding, my mind wandered to my Christmas to-do list. The next few days off work were supposed to be my time to catch up. Clearly, that wasn’t going to happen. I sighed. I noticed how old everything in the back of the ambulance looked. Nothing like the show, Chicago Fire, my only reference point to date. Strange how shiny they keep the handles on the doors, not even a hand print on them. Someone had taped a paper wreath on one of the cabinets in an effort to be festive, I suppose. “So, Jesus, it’s still Christmas. Where are you in this old ambulance with the shiny handles?” I just heard traffic.

We checked in at the hospital which was draped in festive decor to offset the reality that we all would rather be anywhere but there, especially at this time of year. We dutifully recited the medical history they already have in the computer while our boy showed them they needed to find a crib with a top as he scaled the extra tall sides and attempted to shimmy across the light fixture before UpcycleDaddy snatched him down.

The activity finally died down long after midnight and little man and I tried to get some sleep. Once the second bag of antibiotics were started, he suddenly remembered that he had an IV in his arm and became offended all over again. He reached for me and cried and, as I held him, he raised his arm up to my face so I could kiss it repeatedly. He rested his head against my chest and tucked his arm under mine, then over my shoulder, then between our bodies in effort to get comfortable enough to succumb to sleep.

Alone in the dark hospital room with my migraine finally easing, and my sweet son, once an orphan, clutching me for comfort I was struck with the realization that there was nowhere I’d rather be. This child was giving me the greatest gift by allowing me to comfort him, by looking to me for reassurance, by needing me. I chose this boy to be my son, but nearly two year later, it appears he has finally chosen me to be his mom.

As I pondered this, I realized that we were not alone in that dark hospital room after all. For all my irritated, half-hearted searching for Jesus this season, He was there. Emmanuel, God with us. He was with us all along. Thinking back, I could see Him in my husband as he prepared the snack that got Bo through the first few hours, hear Him whispering in my ear the right carols to sing to soothe the savage beast, watch Him beside us as the boy laid quietly for his scan, and feel Him giving me sweet grace to endure the pinching and the migraine with some semblance of patience.

He was in the middle of the IV fiasco spurring hero nurse to action and guiding his hand. He was in the dingy ambulance with the shiny handles, allowing my worn out boy some moments of delight.

Emmanuel. God with us.

We look for him in our cathedrals, and our decorations, and our finery, but God put flesh on and dwelt among us, to do life with us, all of itAnd life is messy. We can find Him there in the middle of our struggles, in the hurts, in the hard, in the hopeless. A God who chose to be born amidst manure is not offended by our stench. Even my cynical questions to Him and clear irritation with my circumstances did not run Him off. He is gracious. He is loving.

He is with us. 

Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. Matthew 1:23

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Selfie in the ER, early in the ordeal.

(Update on the little Serb: He’s home and his ear is fine. Dr. Chicken Little misread the situation thanks to Dr. Boorish speaking over my insights into his medical history. Not fully realizing he doesn’t actually have a mastoid as it was removed last year, Dr. CL panicked and thought the infection had eaten it, thus initiating the unnecessary transport to the children’s hospital. All the IV antibiotics were for naught, as well, it turns out, as his cultures turned up yeast and not bacteria. The right meds have made all the difference and he is definitely on the mend. Oh, and my Christmas to-do-list is almost caught up.)