Foster Parenting: Gardeners for a Season

 NOTE: To share this story, I am pooling from four other foster moms: Brandy, Joyce, Sue, and Suzanne. Collectively we have had over 110 children in our homes. Some of these children were “our own” foster kids and others were children we babysat, sometimes for a day or for several weeks, for other foster moms. Eight of those children have been adopted into three of these homes.

Nurturing Children of Another Mother

When I was a kid, my sisters and I liked to play with dolls in our playhouse next to Mama’s garden. We shopped for groceries in the field beside our house: daisies for eggs, Queen Ann’s Lace for fried potatoes, milkweed for fish, and clover for strawberries. We took our food to the playhouse and cooked, cleaned, churned butter, and played hospital or doctor. We baked pies, cookies, and cakes in the sandbox next to that playhouse.

Our Saint Bernard puppies were our children when we played church on the front porch steps. Cats and kittens alike were obligated to wear the doll clothes we put on them and were forbidden to jump out of the baby buggies in which we pushed them as we walked in and out the dirt lane.

When young mothers brought their children to our place to be babysat for a day, we fought over who got to hold the baby first. In fact, our mother finally started setting the timer on the kitchen stove so each one of us got our “turn” and we’d quit fighting over who got to hold the baby longer. We even had something we called “first baby business” – which was merely the right to hold a baby when it first arrived at our house. Upon hearing that we’d be babysitting, the person who called, “First baby business!” got first dibs on the baby. Mama never had to worry about children being cared for; we’d much rather rock and play with babies than clean bathrooms.

And, when a child became fussy, there was always another sister who was willing to take a turn. Babysitting was more fun and games than work, and I never considered the 24/7 responsibility that came with having children. In my not-completely-perfect childhood, foster care was never contemplated. I knew other foster families but, while it was a great idea, I never considered joining those ranks.

All I knew was that, if I ever got married, I wanted a bunch of kids. We settled for six – actually we ran out of money and I ran out of eggs and veins (and not necessarily in that order).

I was like other moms. You know, the ones who were going to be the best mom: ones who never lost patience and spent endless time reading to and playing with her kids; ones who were creative and full of energy and ideas and imagination; ones who fixed nutritious snacks and meals. Every mom wants to protect her kids from injustice and bad influences and corruption. So it never occurred to me, as a child, young married bride, or even a mother of young children, that I should open my safe, protected home to children from another mother for extended periods.

Our 6: Jason, Ben, Tim on the bottom; Rebekah and Sarah Beth in the middle; Aaron on the top
Our 6: Jason, Ben, Tim on the bottom; Rebekah and Sarah Beth in the middle; Aaron on the top

It was safe here. We knew how to plan and what to expect in the little garden plot of our world. Dave and I had tilled the soil and knew its constituency. Even though we were different, we had experienced similar church and childhood backgrounds. So it wasn’t likely that an unknown weed would crop up. We recognized them all and worked at yanking them out: selfishness, dishonesty, disrespect, laziness, sibling rivalry, and defiance.

Dave and I knew our kids and knew their genetics, personalities, and temperaments because these kids were products of both of us. We shared those same traits, although in varying degrees. Neither of us had to worry about negative influences from other gene pools or life experiences. We didn’t fight bad language or bad habits born from another father and mother. Even though our kids were different, they still functioned in predictable ways.

And so, even though parenting was difficult and frustrating and exhausting at times, life was good because we had our own little world that we had created and built and prayed about. Our garden was pretty secure, nestled away from the cross-pollination of others. We had shade, shelter, and plenty of fertilizer and mulch to keep our garden thriving. We knew what had been planted, and although there were difficult surprises along the way, we kept tending our garden and looking forward to reaping the harvest someday.

Then I joined the ranks of other moms (and their spouses) who felt called to raising seed that had been germinated elsewhere. There were other plants out there that needed a place to flourish; we reckoned with the fact that serving Jesus was more than just caring about our kids, our family, and our little plot in the world. Loving Jesus and giving sacrificially compelled us to look at ways we could make a difference, bring healing to others instead of focusing only on keeping our own from hurting, and give to enrich others rather than claiming what is for “me, myself, and mine.”

We wanted to make a difference. We also wanted to give back to God. We decided to become foster parents, so that makes me a foster mom. I’ve been one since the day I got the first call.

foster Held kids
Foster moms refer to it as “getting the call.” These moms never know when the call will come. Sometimes it comes at an inconvenient time, and the answer has to be no. But always, when the call comes, there is that tug at the heart. A foster mom who has shared her home with 63 children says, “I am waiting for the next call so I can receive more children into my home.”

A case worker shared about the night she took an infant to a home that was receiving a child for the first time. The parents and all six kids were up, waiting for the arrival: “Every light in the house was on, and it was 11 o’clock at night,” she said.  Every time I picture that scene, I want to cry.

A foster mom knows that, if the answer to the call is yes, it will turn her world upside down. Really upside down. Again.

Just when things are settling down to normal, an addition to the family brings uprooting and moving. Plants that were finding root someplace else are yanked out and placed in another garden, with a soil and climate unlike that from which it came.

foster butch braylen

Sure, this soil might seem better, but there is still uprooting and adjusting to a new climate that takes place. Plus, the already established plants feel the squeeze from additions to the plot.

When the phone call comes and the answer is yes, it means “I accept you sight unseen.” Sometimes that includes lice and poor table manners and behavior that one’s own flesh-and-blood kids never exhibited. Almost always it includes reciprocated love.

So while playing with dolls, puppies, kittens, and real babies as a child is fun and creates interest in mothering, it’s no comparison to the undertaking of being a mom or adding more troops to your brood by taking in foster children. It’s not all fun and games; in fact, it’s a lot of extra work.

brothers of different mothersPreparing a heart and a home for another foster child also means preparing a heart for good-bye. The hardest part, foster moms agree, is knowing that the children will someday leave (possibly returning to their own home).

Other difficulties include dealing with discipline issues and all the appointments that need to be scheduled. Foster moms spend more time in doctors’ offices than they did with their own kids: medical, dental, counseling, therapy, speech, PT, and family visitation. Meetings with principals and teachers as well as IEP meetings also take extra time.

Sometimes a foster mom goes along to visits where children are checked for sexual abuse. Somebody needs to hold the child’s hand, and she’s going to be there.

In addition, there are adjustments in their own lives and schedules, especially if the child has severe problems. The loss of privacy and control of one’s schedule never ceases to blindside a foster mom when newcomers enter her home. Nevertheless, like a woman in labor who immediately forgets the pain once she holds her newborn, foster moms forget the difficulty of that adjustment period when there are new shoots in the garden patch. When the call comes, they’re ready to take in more kids who need shelter and a place to be nurtured and grow.

foster ben and brittOther adjustments are finding new and creative ways to deal out discipline to these children who are not theirs. In addition, each child responds differently to consequences and reprimands. Sometimes it takes trial and error to figure out what works best for this previously unknown child.

Another challenge is visits the children have with family members. Just when things are getting settled and children are beginning to feel a part of the family, planned visits occur in order to prepare the children for return to their homes or else to another family member.

Behavior that is not acceptable can be weeded out with persistence and planning. Yet just when it seems it’s been cleared completely out of the patch, something sparks a rebirth of that weed. Visits with parents or family members can cause those weeds to crop up again. Acting out, disrespect, defiance, loudness, and tantrums are par for the course after visits with family members.

foster s and k

foster rubyfoster wynn and bray

Seldom recognized for loving someone else’s children as their own, foster moms diaper and rock and cuddle and love the children of another mother, and sometimes of another color. Especially with older children, it’s a fine line to walk when a foster mom is not the real mom.

A fourteen-year-old boy sobs on his foster mom’s shoulder coming back from his first visit with his mom. Why the tears? No one knows. But he finds solace and comfort in the woman who’s been “mom” to him for a few short months. His younger sister finally cries herself to sleep after another visit, all the while being cuddled and rocked by her foster mom for over an hour.

foster bray           foster dave and k,s        foster hats s and k

A foster mom of a three-year-old stays up most of the night after he has visits with his mom. He bangs his head against the wall so hard that his nose bleeds.

“I couldn’t leave him alone; I was afraid he’d hurt himself,” she says. She has to go to work the next day, but it doesn’t matter, for this little guy has wound his way into her heart, and she’s there for him no matter what it takes.

Foster moms know to clear their calendar the day of a visit – they’ll be dealing with anxiety, behavior issues, tears, and tiredness. Just as in the aftermath of a storm, they have to be ready to pick up the pieces of debris left in its wake. Again.

One foster mother Suzanne told me, “Love isn’t enough. I assumed it would be, but I quickly learned that wasn’t true at all. Love is essential, but so is training, new ways of parenting, and a professional support system.”

And, just as in parenting one’s own, Suzanne says foster parenting requires “a willingness to let go of any expectations you may have of the system or a child.” Again. Letting go of garden dreams, designs and plans is difficult – but it must happen for a successful season.

If a foster mom has kids of her own still at home, they will be caught up in the drama and will be affected. They’ll need to sacrifice. Again.

foster swimming pool
Our youngest of four boys became the oldest of four when these three boys came to live in our home.

Sometimes she’ll be caught between her own plants and these new seedlings. Sometimes her own kids have to make sacrifices – like the 15-year-old son who had to forgo getting his driving permit the day he became old enough because his eight-month foster sister was awarded to a family member that same day. The call from the social worker changed plans for his mom to take him to DMV. Instead of gaining a permit, he, along with his five siblings, said tearful good-byes to the infant who had been in their home for five months.

Suzanne’s children: 2 adopted and 2 biological. Since this photo was taken, they have adopted another girl.

For a mom with children the same age as the ones in her home, there’s the “risk” of negative influence. Children come with patterns of behavior that have been ingrained for years. Those patterns cannot be broken overnight or even over a few months. The safety net of family is stretched and issues surface because there are new little people in the house with a completely different set of experiences and a different way of looking at things.

foster deck door
inquisitive little people

 

Another difficult aspect involves dealing with truth. We consider ourselves truthful people. I told our kids the truth and expected the same from them. Imagine my surprise to find that a foster child could look me straight in the eye and tell me a lie with such seriousness that I had no doubt he was telling me the truth. His parents had modeled it so well that he thought there was nothing wrong with being untruthful. Telling a lie was more common to him than being honest.

foster slagel halloween
2 + 2 = 4

 

Suzanne, a foster mom, says, “Doing foster care well requires you to truly enter into a child’s and family’s pain. Although it looks different with different children, the descent into sharing a child’s pain always feels the same. It is HARD. Sometimes it means sitting for hours on the floor beside a little girl’s bed at night because she is too lonely and scared of me to be comforted or desire to be touched. Sometimes it’s meant cleaning poop off carpet, windows, and walls because a little boy didn’t have the words to tell us about his fear and trauma.

“Other times it’s loving a baby day after day, while even in infancy he chose to not love me back because I was not his ‘real’ mama. And there are times it means holding a child while he rages and screams for literally hours, knowing that he didn’t know what being loved by a mama day in and out was like, but still feeling rejected in spite of that fact. In the last year it’s meant bearing through days and nights of a baby’s grief-stricken screams, just waiting until she felt loved enough to be calm.

“And sometimes, it means loving mamas who didn’t know how to love their own kids well – taking them groceries, giving them pictures . . . . And sometimes it’s sitting through days of court until finally hearing a verdict that takes away parental rights permanently, a verdict that makes a child a legal orphan – unimaginable brokenness. Listening to stories of drugs and abuse, blood and guns, poverty and lack of education, prostitution and drugs – those are the dark days. Those are days when you wonder what qualifies you to be in this place, to have this calling.”

"Yes, Jesus loves me"
“Yes, Jesus loves me”

Yet, while tending a garden is hard and tedious labor, there are blessings as well. Harvest reaps the benefits of one’s labor, sharing the bounty with family and enjoying the succulent delight of newly ripened produce.

The fragrance of love is exquisite, even though it may be prickly.  There is a kaleidoscope of expressions in experiencing new things: a visit to the mall, a ride on the escalator, going out for ice cream cones, family time where everyone is included, meal times around the kitchen table, participation in a Christmas program, learning about the real meaning of Christmas or of Easter, learning to reach out to others by helping a neighbor with yard work, rippling laughter of play, and being tucked in at night.

foster pjs slagels

A visitor in our home, after hearing part of the story of the children we were parenting, said, “We don’t know what we have.” No, we don’t.

No, we don’t.

Our children can learn from having foster siblings in the home. They see the pain, the anger, and the wounds.  It helps them realize how blessed they are to have parents who will fight for them, who never give up, and who expect and believe the best in them.

Sometimes our kids have celebrated awards without us being present because of the foster children in our home. Giving up beds or bedrooms and sharing their parents with other seedlings is not always easy, but it’s necessary. And it is worth the energy expended.

our son with boys from two other mothers
our son with boys from two other mothers – play dough pizza

“I’ve looked into the eyes of an abused or unwanted child, and I know it’s worth it,” says Brandy, a mom of four teens who has three foster children under the age of five in her home.

In our foster family journey, we wanted to give back to God for sparing the life of my husband in an accident ten years ago. During evenings when playing the same card game over and over brought complaints from our kids, I reminded them that this was our Thank You to God. During days when the dishwasher has to be emptied more than three times, I remember that this is a way to worship God.

During nights of being awake repeatedly, rocking a child who is afraid she’ll be left alone, I have been so weary. When I remember why I am doing this, I can truly say, “Jesus, this is my thank You to You.” When I whisper those words, the tiredness doesn’t matter, and I realize that saying thanks to Him isn’t really thanks if it doesn’t cost me at all. The words “offer the sacrifice of praise” take on new meaning when I am weary and spent. [Jeremiah 33:11 Hebrews 13:15]

Suzanne also shares, “The God who sits beside us in our tears is the God Who is faithful to sit beside me during those long nights when I’m holding and comforting a hurt and lonely child. I get to be the one who doesn’t just descend into their darkness, but with God’s help, gives them a hand and helps pull them back out. I get to be the one who teaches a child what safety truly feels like. I get to be the mama who teaches a child who may have never ever known the love of a mama what it feels like to be loved unconditionally. I get to be the one who introduces a young soul to Jesus for the first time, even when I have no assurance that they will ever hear of Him from another person in their life.”

another baby to love
another baby to love

It’s been quite a few years since I played with my sisters in that playhouse with our dolls. At my age, I’ve rocked more children than kittens.  I’ve spent more time in church with real children than I ever did with the puppies on the porch steps.

I’ve spent more hours in grocery stores than any I spent collecting “food” in the pastures next to our house. I’ve baked more cookies and bread than any we pretended to do in our sandbox. My sisters love our foster children just like they loved the babies who came to our house. And our foster kids love them right back.

 

my sister Barbara loving one of of "my" babies
my sister Barbara loving one of “my” babies

Playing church at my home place was a lot of fun, and the memories are part of my life. Being the church to lonely, hurting children is even more enjoyable and rewarding, for we’ve seen growth as children have thrived in our home. Surely they will remember that, even though our garden wasn’t perfect, they were loved. We ourselves have learned so much. We have experienced grace that is more than sufficient and strength that is made perfect in our weakness. [2 Corinthians 12:9]

As Suzanne says, “I get to help change a child’s life, but really, truly, the best thing about fostering is how those little children change me. I am transformed by their strength and resilience, and I am undone by their pain and grief. I am reminded of everything broken in this world, and I am thankful that I know (and can teach them to know) the Healer.”

foster slagel by barn
Suzanne’s kids

So this Mother’s Day, I applaud the many women in the world who are moms to children of another mother – who give and give, love and love, and claim these kids as their own. I applaud the hearts of each foster mom, for even though her “children” leave, there is forever and always a part of them left behind – in her heart.

 

Think Pink

Sunlight arrived first, followed by Moonbeam. Both summer babies, they were born a little over two years apart. I envisioned for them days of laughter and nights of sharing secrets, and (someday) grown up girls who were friends.

How was I to know then that my vision was just a dream?

SB and R 1
sisters since birth . . .

As a child, I had five sisters with whom to play, and I imagined my girls would have as much fun playing together as we did.

years later . . .

People who knew us and watched us grow up said they had never seen a group of sisters who were so alike and yet so different. Our mother didn’t try to make us become more alike; she allowed us to be different and enjoyed the kaleidoscope of our personalities. So naturally I assumed that if I ever had girls, they’d be like us: varying shades of pink.

 

SB and R 3
Sunlight
Sb and R 4
Moonbeam

 

When Dave and I started our family, I figured our offspring would have a childhood like mine: days filled with the rich texture of creative playing and blending of varied hues.

 

I didn’t mind having three boys in a row. I grew accustomed to days filled with rambunctious noises and snips-and-snails-and-puppy-dog-tails, awash in a spectrum of blue.  With each pregnancy, it didn’t matter to me what sex our baby would be.

SB and R 5 snips and snails
three boys and no girls – yet

I just wished for healthy children who would grow up to love Jesus and have fun together as they swirled rainbow after rainbow of fun.

Then when Sunlight, our fourth child and first daughter joined our family, I was tickled pink.

Maybe, just maybe she would one day have a sister. My sisters and I fought our way through childhood days but also made wonderful memories playing together. I wanted our little princess to have as much fun as we did growing up together.

Two years later when another baby was on the way, I thought perhaps my dream would come true. After all, how could I raise my little girl without a sister? I wasn’t sure I’d know how to do that.

And I wished, just this once, for another tint of pink to add to our palette.

So the day my doctor did an ultrasound to make sure it was safe for me to travel, and asked me if I wanted to know what sex this child was, I said yes.

Never mind that Dave and I had always chosen not to know ahead of time because we wanted to experience the surprise of finding blue or pink at the end the rainbow.

Never mind that all four children were in the exam room because we were heading to a friend’s pool after this visit.

Never mind they might pick up on the lingo and spill the paint.

For the first time in any pregnancy, I wanted to know.

Dr. Ward scanned my abdomen, looked at the monitor, and said quietly, “Think pink.”

“Are you sure?!” I asked, elated.

To answer, he pointed to the screen and named the female parts of this unborn child.

All afternoon, I hugged the sugar-n-spice secret to myself. This was before the days of cell phones and texting, so I didn’t have a chance to talk to Dave until he came home for supper amid the clamor of kids.

Around the supper table that evening, I told Dave about the ultrasound.

“I know the secret, and I’ll tell you if you want to know. But I promise not to say another word if you don’t want to know.”

“Sure,” he said, eyeing the children as we passed food around the table, “but not now!”

I couldn’t wait. “Think pink,” I said, grinning.

Dave wasn’t convinced. We knew too many people who had painted a nursery pink only to come home with a little-boy-blue.

Still, I was convinced because I had seen that ultrasound.

We didn’t tell anybody that we knew, and carried visions of  everything-nice in our hearts while we waited.

The boys were oblivious as I laundered pink dresses and stock-piled little girl onesies. Less than a month later, little Moonbeam appeared.

Petite and tiny, she was as dark as her sister was fair.

a mama and princesses two
a mama and her princesses two

I should have known then that these little maidens might not be as alike as I had dreamed.  SB and 4 6 They weren’t.

Oh sure, they liked to play with dolls and have play school, or play church. They liked to color, have their hair combed in different styles, and wear new clothes.

Oh yes, they spent many hours of fun playing together and imitating others. Yet even then, each girl’s swatch held its own distinct colors.

sb and r 8
look-alikes on the outside

 

sb and r 7

 

The older they became, the more visible were their differences.  Yes, they both carried the X chromosome. But that is pretty much where the similarities stopped. We talked about it a few months ago, sitting in a restaurant out of town.

“You can count on one hand the ways we are alike,” said Sunlight, daring us to prove her wrong.

Moonbeam grinned across the table, first at her, then at us.

I hadn’t pondered that thought much because I knew it wouldn’t change the way they were designed. But when I had to answer the question, I realized how much they were both right.

For once, they agreed!

3 blue-eyed cherubs
3 blue-eyed cherubs

We found a few ways: they have the same parents and the same brothers.

Both carry the recessive blue-eye gene (but then, so does one of their brothers).

Of our half-dozen, they are the only ones who wear glasses. I admit that it was hard coming up with other similarities.

“You both like to read,” I said, knowing exactly what was coming next.

always their father's daughters
always their father’s daughters

Sure. Sunlight enjoys mystery, novels, and fiction. Moonbeam likes history, animal stories, and love stories.

They enjoy videos. Sunlight likes detective, suspense, and comedy episodes. Moonbeam watches historical features, love stories, and family shows.

As a child, Sunlight’s countenance disappeared behind clouds with a mere look from her father, and obedience was usually instant.

Moonbeam defied in word and in deed, often stomping her foot and spouting words to emphasize her refusal to obey – thus spending hours in time out.

Both enjoy music. As children, Sunlight played flute, and Moonbeam played clarinet. Their taste of music is varied although there are genres about which they now agree.

While Sunlight is able to mend if necessary, Moonbeam designed and made her own quilt when she was nine. It’s true that she had some help from an aunt, and the quilt was hand-quilted by cousins and bound by another senior friend. But the design and piecing of the quilt was done by Moonbeam herself.

Sunlight likes to cook but hates to hang out laundry. Moonbeam likes to clean and do laundry but does not like to cook.

Sunlight likes babies and small children; Moonbeam relates well with young cousins and older kids.

Sunlight is disciplined and can get up early in the morning even if she’s been up late. Sunlight likes to watch movies as she falls asleep.

Moonbeam needs a lot of sleep and stays up until all hours of the night, falling asleep with several open books on her bed, and then wants to sleep in come morning.

They both like to shop but would never wear each other’s clothes because their tastes are so different (unless we’re talking Virginia Tech clothing). Even if they shared the same tastes, difference in size prohibits sharing of clothing.

sb and r r grad
graduation speech in bare feet

Moonbeam never wears shoes unless she has to and walked barefoot at her high school graduation.

Sunlight was appalled at her sister’s bare feet on the platform as she gave her graduation speech; she likes to wear heels and be proper even though she enjoys sporting sandals and flip flops.

Moonbeam hates to be cold; Sunlight is usually hot and sleeps with the AC on high or a fan blowing in her face.

sb and 4 11 sb sky dive
ready for that sky dive

Sunlight is daring. Skydiving, snowboarding and donating blood regularly are accomplished feats. Moonbeam is cautious.

Moonbeam wouldn’t think of spending her money on skydiving and admits a sense of relief that she does not weigh enough to donate blood.

Sunlight thinks the speed limit is posted for the lowest speed one should go. In the first week after Moonbeam received her driving permit, she had to pull over to allow cars to pass her because she barely kept the speedometer at speed limit.

In the past year, however, Moonbeam has navigated her way across hundreds of miles in Virginia without any trouble at all.

When the three of us travel anywhere, Sunlight takes the wheel. When it’s just Moonbeam and me, I’m the driver.

Sunlight is my navigator, introducing me to new shops and new flavors.

Moonbeam keeps me tuned to new people and ideas through new authors, books, and web sites.

Sunlight beams gently, providing warmth and compassion to those who are lonely.

Moonbeam is fiercely loyal once she knows someone well but tends to hide her compassion behind clouds.

Both of them are hoarders, but when it is time to dispose of items, they differ.

Sunlight keeps cards, tags, and receipts from trips and events with friends. She willingly disposes of toys and teddies once special to her.

Moonbeam keeps cards, pictures, notes, awards, and memorabilia from travels and special occasions. Moonbeam refuses to allow her childhood Tigger to be gifted or sold.

Sunlight is bored with genealogy and who is related to whom. Moonbeam will read family history books in order to learn more about the families from which she hails. She visits readily with older people who can answer questions about her genealogy.

Career pursuits are at opposite ends of the spectrum: physical therapy vs. agriculture sciences and a minor in history. Neither has an understanding of the interest of the other in career choice; yet in this case, Sunlight is following her mother’s side of the family and Moonbeam follows her father’s.

saying farewell to FFA
saying farewell to FFA

In relating as a family, Moonbeam favors her mother’s side of the family; and Sunlight favors her father’s.

Moonbeam thinks like her mother and has difficulty seeing humor in family jokes that she does not consider funny. She is nostalgic and hates to leave friends behind when she moves on to new avenues.

Sunlight has always held her own with her brothers and cracks jokes with the best of them, and unless it’s in your genes, you just don’t get it. Their humor is one of a kind.

sb and r sily face
two peas in a pod

When both of them are home, I enjoy their blending of hues, making quite a team.

My laundry and cleaning is done without complaint by Moonbeam. The kitchen, complete with meal preparation, is kept stocked and cleaned by Sunlight.

When I need computer or internet assistance, I ask Sunlight.

When I’m looking for something I’ve misplaced, Moonbeam will know exactly where it is.

While I have always practiced having these gals do things in which they don’t excel or don’t like to do, I also know who is quicker to respond to which need – and I utilize that as well.

We’ve spent time talking about the mosaic of their personalities. We’ve made conscious decisions to enable those personalities to blend into the tapestry of our family.

A year ago we did a long-distance Bible study for three months. From a dorm, an apartment, and home, we met via Skype on a bi-weekly basis. For once, they agreed on a topic, and we connected long distance. For once, discussions didn’t take us down random roads, leaving one frustrated with the other. After all these years, it finally happened.

Sunlight
Sunlight

It’s been quite a twenty-year ride, being their mom. Our girls were right. They are more different than they are alike.

When the obstetrician said, “Think pink,” that’s about as close as it got.

I’m grateful that there are many shades of pink, for otherwise, I would surely be bored.

Moonbeam

Some shades are vivid, vibrant, and intense. Others are delicate, serene, and tender.

I’m okay with that because I know the One who designed the entire spectrum of pink. I also know that He makes no mistakes. In His massive canvas of life, He never has to correct mistakes or begin over.

Each color, each shade, and each hue adds a different flavor to our family and our world.

They will always be sisters. One day, I believe, they will become best of friends.

When I think of being a mom to girls, I no longer just think pink.

I envision cherry blossom, fuchsia, raspberry, magenta, cerise, flamingo, ruby, strawberry, and rose.

I think of contrasts: light and dark, rich and pastel.

And I am grateful that, in our family, we have been able to experience and enjoy the varied contrast of textures.

We’ve also been touched by the unique and diverse shades of pink.

4 boys + 2 girls = 1/2 dozen
4 boys + 2 girls = 1/2 dozen. L to R: Jason, Sarah Beth, Rebekah, Tim, Aaron on Ben’s shoulders

Celebrating the Mothers in my Life

mothers

 

It’s Mother’s day, and I am looking outward instead of inward.

Rather than looking at what I don’t have, I choose to claim the blessings that are mine. I realize there are women who feel pain over being single or childless, especially on Mother’s Day.

There are other women out there who have prodigal offspring and wonder if they are ever coming home. Other moms have buried offspring. I recognize that pain.

I know the pain is real and realize, (not to be cliché), that only God can heal.

I have learned that healing can be expedited if I look outward instead of spending too much time looking in.

mothers

I  was one month shy of thirty when I got married and a little over thirty-one when I had my first child. Ten years later I had my sixth.

I can’t identify with mothers or women who have had miscarriages, suffered infertility, or buried a newborn. God has not taken me through those valleys although I could write a book about valleys of my own.

I cannot empathize with women who wanted to adopt but couldn’t, or with single mothers who gave away their newborn for adoption and don’t know whether or not they should consider themselves a mother. (I think they should.)

I’ve never had an abortion either, so I can’t relate to mothers who crave to hold the baby they chose to abort. I have never buried a child.

Walking with friends who are living that grief has made me more certain it is something I hope I never experience, even though I well know it could happen to me. Nor have I felt the rejection of a mother who didn’t want me, or wondered if she wished I had never been born.

Sure, there were days I didn’t think there was a lot of love to go around.  Yet when the sticks were down, I knew where I belonged.

Don’t think for a minute I think I have achieved, or that I have it all together, or that life is perfect for me. It just isn’t so. Yet because of others who have experienced heartache and grief, this year I choose to look outward instead of in.

Mothers and Motherhood Should be Celebrated

I remember Sunday mornings when my church celebrated mothers – those days when I wasn’t a mother and had not yet found my Prince Charming. I wondered if I would ever be a mother, yet I was glad to honor the mothers in my church who did all the things that mothers do.

Some of those moms were pretty awesome, and some would probably have benefited from some parenting classes. Some of those moms were the best Sunday school teachers I had, possibly because they had children of their own. I had other teachers who never mothered their own but became that image to their students and gave a security that some of them had never felt at home.

And the Menu Was?

I had a teacher who, on a whim, invited her entire Sunday school class of girls home for Sunday lunch. She had forgotten that it was Children’s Day, and she wanted to do something special for us.

I can’t tell you a thing that was on the menu that day, but some forty-five years later I still remember the warmth and love I felt as well as the fun we had at her house that afternoon. She didn’t have to teach about hospitality; she modeled it. Because of women like Mary Anna Yoder, I choose to look outward instead of in.

Mothered by Others

I had aunts – sixteen of them – who were so busy raising their own children and (by the time I came along) being a grandmother that they didn’t have much time to be an auntie to me. We didn’t do sleepovers and those things one would think aunties should do.

We were expected to finish the food on our plates and help with dishes when we visited for Sunday lunch. They critiqued what I wore or didn’t wear and things I wrote and how I combed my hair and the friends I called mine.

They modeled courage and hard work and following God’s Word instead of the world.

They never funded a vacation for me or gave money towards my college education.

But I knew then that, if I ever needed a place, I would be welcomed and loved by any one of them.

I Belonged

Sure, some seemed more generous and loving than others and I definitely had my favorites, but I knew I belonged. Each one of them claimed me as their niece. Each of them is now gone, and I wish sometimes, like Emily in Our Town, that I could have just one day to visit with them. Because of my aunts, I have chosen to look outward instead of in.

A Special Aunt

One of those aunts was single and, although she never bore any children, she was Aunt Kate to children and adults alike in her community in Appalachia Maryland. She was Tante Kate to children in Luxembourg and Germany where she worked for several years as a missionary.

I never considered Aunt Kate less of a woman because she didn’t have children or wasn’t married. She did some fairly prolific things in her life. Her sisters, all of whom mothered five to ten children of their own, admired her for the woman she was. Aunt Kate chose to look outward instead of in.

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Aunt Kate with her great niece and nephews from Nebraska

She gave her heart to children and to adults, and I considered her a woman of wealth because of who she was. If Aunt Kate had spent her life bemoaning her fate of singleness and childlessness, she would never have become a favorite of all of us.

In Aunt Kate’s later years, she had plenty of nieces (many of them nurses) who gave back to her because of all she had invested in them. Because of Aunt Kate, I have chosen to look outward instead of in.

A Special Nurse Mentor

I worked alongside a nurse on the midnight shift at WVU Medical Center in Morgantown, West Virginia in the late 1970s. I was a new graduate and she was a pro. She was sweet, short and Chinese. I was not so sweet, not so short, and Caucasian.

She taught me about connecting with irritated families and frustrated doctors, and how to irrigate catheters and check equipment and how not to let my patients see that I was nauseated. Those nine months we worked the graveyard shift together, she modeled caring for the whole person.

Her patience was insurmountable as she birthed me into becoming a better nurse than I was when I arrived on her unit.

Because of mom-mentors like Lian Lee, I choose to look outward instead of in.

 

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Aunt Kate with her great-nephew Benjamin and the Bible she inscribed with his name on it.

My Kids’ Aunts

I have sisters – five of them – who are single and have never birthed or raised a child. But they’ve been there for their nieces and nephews (as well as our foster kids,) and taught them to tie shoes, to read, to play fairly, and to enjoy nature. They’ve fixed zippers and played ball, patched up dolls and made or mended blankets. They’ve traveled to attend piano recitals and graduations and weddings and baby showers and livestock shows and cheered from a distance when they couldn’t be there in person. The aunties have had sleepovers and paid nieces and nephews to go to different homes to sing for older folks when the temperature was in the single digits.

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Aunt Rachel drove from Maryland to Virginia to root for our kids. Here is she helping “blow dry” a sheep in preparation for the Livestock Show and Sale.

They’ve allowed little ones to help bake cookies and driven to Tastee-Freez just to buy ice cream cones for good behavior. Their nieces and nephews are mostly grown, so they’re working on the next generation now.

They’ve babysat and changed diapers and picked blackberries and taken photos and read stories and had tea parties and colored Easter eggs and hidden Easter baskets. So on Mother’s Day, I choose to look outward instead of in and applaud my sisters who have helped mother our broods in ways we never could.

 

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Easter egg hunt at Grandma’s house in care of the aunties

My Mother-in-law

I had a mother-in-law who was the best a girl could have. She claimed me and cared about me. She showered love on me and she scolded me. She mothered me and she mentored me. She laughed a lot, prayed a lot, and loved a lot. She wasn’t perfect, either, but she was forgiven. Her time on earth was much too short; but because of this woman who loved red, I choose to look outward instead of in.

Yes, I have chosen, this year, instead of looking in, to look outward.

My Mother

I had a mother. Imperfect – that she was. Old fashioned, I thought at times. Set in her ways, for sure. Mama didn’t like to have the furniture re-arranged. For goodness sake (words she would never have used), why not leave it just the way it is.?! If it wasn’t broken, she saw no need to try to fix it.

The music we enjoyed was not always what she thought was best. Some of the places we went, she never would have gone. Some of the things her grandchildren were allowed to do, she never would have done or allowed her girls to do.

She was a single mom for fifteen years and she was sometimes so busy making a living that she didn’t have much time to enjoy life. We didn’t have much when it came to counting material things, but we had security.

We were family, and we belonged.

Mama didn’t complain about needing to raise her girls alone. She just did it. She chose to work instead of sitting at home receiving government assistance. She might not have talked much about her feelings and we seldom saw her cry. But we belonged because we were family.

Somehow, after a long summer’s day when our mother finally came home from her bread route, everything was okay, because our mama was home. She was a woman of integrity and there was no shame in telling folks we belonged to her. She prayed – for her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. She spent time reading her Bible and when she could no longer read it herself, she wanted us to read it to her.

Looking back, I realize there are so many things she taught by her life – things I didn’t see at the time. Those things are part of me today, and I am the woman I am because of her.

Looking Out Without a Mother

This year, I don’t have my mother, but I am choosing to look outward instead of in. I had her for fifty-five years, and I am grateful. When I knew I would soon be saying goodbye, I couldn’t imagine walking through that valley or finding a way to say good-bye. But a friend helped me be realistic. “It won’t be goodbye. It will just be goodnight,” she said. “You will see her in the morning.”

I miss my mama. There are days I wish for one more conversation, for the opportunity to pick up the phone just one more time and call home. I’d like to hear my mama’s voice once again. There have been days when just hearing her voice would have made me feel like everything was going to be okay. I’ve imagined what it would be like to pick up the phone and call her. I can almost hear her voice. And then I cry, because imagining and remembering is as far as it can go right now, even though I believe she is in that cloud of witnesses cheering me on (Hebrews 12:1).

So I can look inward this year and bemoan that my mother is no longer here and that my kids don’t have a grandmother. Or I can choose to look outward and recognize the good things in my life because I had my mother and so many other women who have blessed me all those years.

I can covet accolades from my own brood or I can reach out to others who feel empty.

I am a woman, and I choose to embrace life, here and now.

That’s why I’m looking outward instead of in.

 

Autumn is Here

Autumn is Here!

autumn road
 Fall tells the same story all over again,
Bursting with fire, wind, laughter, and rain;
Enchanting in colors of orange and brown,
Aglow in the splendor of leaves falling down.
  autumn one leaf
I hear her still calling, haphazardly so,
To the Scarlets and Maples, to have them let go.
And again at this season, the best of the year,
I’m alive in creation, for Autumn in here!
auturmn trees
Gertrude M. Slabach, circa 1981
One day in a writing class, the instructor read portions of stories and poetry from different writers.
She asked us to write down words we heard that struck a chord in us.
When that was done, she told us to take those words and write a poem or vignette, using those words.
This poem is the result of that writing exercise in 1981 at WVU in Morgantown, WV.