My Two Favorite Posts of 2014

Looking back over 2014, it’s surprising to me that my favorite and, coincidentally, most popular posts were about foster care and adoption. All of these posts were written out of desperation– a way to express an overflowing amount of frustration and emotion.

This post, titled 10 Things I Never Knew About Foster Care, was found and featured on Adopt US Kids. I had no idea it was on there until I started getting thousands of hits. When I tracked down the actual Facebook post containing the link, I felt beat down and discouraged by the negativity I found. After I regrouped my emotions, however, I realized that 99.9% of the feedback was positive, filled with relieved fellow foster parents who were thankful that they weren’t alone in their experience. I learned that to be a blogger, one has to hear the negative feedback and ignore it, so long as one can evaluate the situation honestly. I wrote this follow up post as a defense for why I blog about foster care, and it gave me a lot of much-needed clarity and peace of mind.

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My second favorite post of 2014 was an open letter I wrote to one of our foster children, a boy who no longer lives with us but is still very near and dear to my heart. I think about him every day, and this letter remains as proof that we loved him and loved the gift that he gave to us.

This post went viral when it was featured on Parenting Magazine’s website. I felt so honored that others got a glimpse of the change that foster care has produced in my heart.image

In a nutshell, these were my two favorite posts of 2014. Please, feel free to share them with current foster parents who might need encouragement or solidarity. Know that I have always made time to respond to inquiries and fellow foster parents– some of my best “blog friends” that I found through these posts are now part of my personal profile on Facebook! 😉

 

5 Essential Items For Parenting Toddlers

5 Essential Items for Raising Toddlers

The other day, it occurred to me that there are a ton of articles and lists out there about items one will need for parenting babies, but not many when it comes to toddlers. Perhaps it’s assumed that by the time kids are walking/talking, the parent is a veteran, and already knows what does and doesn’t work for them.

And yet…I don’t know about all of you, but parenting toddlers is a LOT harder in many ways than parenting a newborn. Did you all see this new book that came out? Parents of toddlers need humor in their lives for a reason– IT’S SUPER HARD. Sure, that 4 month old baby wakes up all the time, spits up, and can’t tell you what they need with words, but guess what. Toddlers STILL wake up all the time, spit up (usually on purpose, which makes it worse), and they STILL can’t express themselves with anything other than screaming (because, why use signs or words when howling is an option? Seriously, why are toddlers so LOUD?).

As I was rocking my 2.5 year old to sleep today (for the 3rd time), I started remembering all the little things that I’ve gathered over the years that have helped me parent my toddler and preschooler. I’ve also included a few things at the end that helped me when I was parenting our 10 and 5 year old foster children last year.

This list does not include “the best carseat” or anything– it’s a survival list, full of things that might just help you make it through the crazy years of parenting a toddler (or multiples, God help you).

microfiber cloths

 

1. Microfiber cloths–I have normal washcloths for wiping their grubby after-meal faces and hands, but these little puppies are an absolute life-saver for liquid-related emergencies. They hold 2-3x their weight in water! Just one will hold an entire toddler cup’s worth (ask me how I know).

You can find them in any automotive section, but I liked the pretty colors that they have on Amazon.Buying these was a bit of an accident– I didn’t know that they were actually used for car washing and the like, but if you could see how many times my kids have spilled their very-full cups of water on the ground (yes, intentionally, just to see what would happen), you might actually be able to envision a car wash in my dining room.

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2. Bjorn Training Potty— When I went to potty-train Gregory, it was surprising to me how many potties don’t have a “splash guard” for boys. The boys hardly know what’s going on down there, much less the fact that they can spray everything in the room (one more use for the towels mentioned above). This one is super cheap, no frills, but it DOES have a little “shield”, which made life a lot easier at the beginning.

Granted, there are miracle children who naturally want to make your life easier by immediately going potty in an adult toilet (mine FINALLY does, after 3 months of potty training), but sometimes you never know how your kid is going to react to potty training until you’re there and in the moment. And every kid is different, even if they’re siblings 🙂

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3. White Noise Machine– It always shocks me when people don’t own one (or two) of these. We got one when Gregory was 3 months old, and we have used that thing for millions of hours by now. When you have two kids and a smallish space, a white noise machine turned up LOUD is essential for keeping the smaller kid asleep while the older one plays. This is especially true if your preschooler is really into imaginary guns, transformers, and train noises.

I hear parents complaining about the doorbell, older sibling, or dog waking up a kid napping, and I think, BUY THYSELF A NOISE MAKER. Problem solved. Your kid will never get awoken from a nap again. We could not live without this little machine, honestly, and with it I can create a sleeping environment for my kids almost anywhere, which enables us to still get sleep when we’re traveling.

silicone placemat

4. Heavy duty placemats-– No, don’t get the cute kind. Get these from Bean Sprouts. They are the bullet proof vest of messes. I almost never have to wipe down the table after a meal– these placemats catch it all. They go in the dishwasher. They are sturdy enough for me to wash them in the sink without folding. The lip around the edge catches any liquid (or vomit, sigh) that may happen, and it doesn’t get all over the floor. These ones from Bean Sprouts are made from recycled non-toxic silicone, and, to be honest, sometimes I don’t even need a plate because this works even better.

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5. Preschool Prep DVDs– Okay, okay, no mom actually wants her kids watch TV. But let’s be honest here. We all do it. Every mom I know has turned on the tv for a half hour here or there in order to preserve her sanity.

Sometimes it’s when you’re making dinner, and the kids are having a meltdown.

Sometimes, it’s when the kids are punching and biting each other and having a meltdown.

Sometimes, it’s when they’ve awoken 2-3x in the middle of the night, and still choose to wake up at 5am and have a meltdown (sense a theme here?).

It’s good to have something to reach for, when the going gets rough.

On the bonus side, these DVDs are the best educational thing I’ve found (Leapfrog DVDs are also educational but so annoying!). I have a friend whose 18 month old can recite her numbers, shapes and colors! My 4 year old has been sounding out and reading words since he had just turned 3. The music is classical and soothing, which makes for great background noise if you’re trying to calm everyone down.

Like I said, the best case scenario is that your kid never watches a drop of TV ever. But the reality is that they will, occasionally. This is TV that you can actually sorta feel good about 🙂

So, there you have it– my 5 essential items for parenting toddlers 🙂 Agree? Disagree? Anything to add?

 

And now the list of Honorable Mentions:

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1. Leapfrog Alphabet toy— I like this toy because of how entranced my kids are with it, and because of how it helps them sound out words. A friend of mine’s child was reading by the time she was 2 using JUST this toy, if that gives you an idea.

It’s an honorable mention because the singsongy-ness is almost enough to drive you crazy. So, fair warning 🙂

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2. Okay To Wake Owl— This thing is cute, but my kids don’t exactly obey it all that well. But for some people whose kids like to wake up at the crack of dawn, it’s a lifesaver (check out the reviews! wowza!).

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3. Visual Packing Chart— This isn’t exactly a product to buy, just a helpful tip we found while parenting our foster children. They were super forgetful, not only because of all the stress they were under, but also because…that’s just how kids are! Psychologists have proven that kids cannot visualize certain things, especially when cleaning up or packing ahead. We created a visual packing list for our 10 year old’s morning backpack needs, and a visual chore chart for getting home. Both of these were very helpful in keeping everyone’s frustration in check!

Afternoon Coffee Date– Pain, Suffering, and whether God is really Good

Helen at coffee date

Today’s coffee date is brought to you by my second round of coffee late in the afternoon. Why? Because this morning I was blessed with a real-life coffee date, you know, the kind with real people sitting in front of me? Not to diss this blog or the friends I’ve made here, but I kinda prefer the real-life version! Any-who. Who says I can’t have both?

A group of my friends from church (all of whom have remained my friends from the first time we lived in Dallas, through our time in CA, and now for Round 2 of Dallas) have started a twice a month get-together, where we all convene at a different house and let the kids go crazy in another room while we chat.

We have also been inviting a wise lady (the one in the picture above, who did not want her face shown!) from our parish, a mom to 5 kids, Grandma to many, who’s been married happily for 50+ years. This lady has experienced trials within the family, including job loss, cancer and divorce, so she knows what it means to suffer, praising God through it all. My friends and I have decided that while she still worships on this earth with us, we would love to sit at her feet and glean knowledge from her like breadcrumbs. She’s also one of the most humble people– truly, she is one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met.

We talked last time about motherhood, but today’s topic of conversation was about being a wife. We read from an Orthodox book (I need to track down the title!), from a chapter titled, “Give Up Control to Have More Power”. This was so convicting and deeply powerful for all of us.

What we have to remember in this day and age is that information– thoughts and words– and our interpretation of information– feelings and emotions– are not the fuel of life, nor the substance of change. LOVE is the fuel of life, the very substance of our being. God created us out of love and sustains us literally by Divine Grace., by His Energies, which is precisely Love. When we receive the Holy Mysteries, we receive the very Body and Blood of Christ, who, St. John testifies, “is Love”. Love does not turn us away in the communion line despite the faults of our own that are even obvious to us(and more so the ones that aren’t). Neither should we consider it our job to withhold love pending some change in behavior on the part of our spouse. When our husbands come to learn that our love is there for them whether or not we personally get what we want, even if it means that something they are doing is causing us to suffer, they find a springboard to what Fr. Paul calls the metanoia (or literally, change of heart) that turns us back to God and further towards the person we were created to be.

There are so many times I hear about marriages that come to a stand still because change is needed, and the couple has no tools with which to conquer the things that are separating them. It’s so easy within a marriage to withhold our love and approval until change has been met, no? Today’s conversation revolved around supporting our husband’s decisions, because until he feels loved and supported for who he is, regardless of outcome, he will continue to make the same mistakes. Tough love doesn’t work within a marriage– unconditional love and support do.

The world would probably tell us otherwise, but I decided long ago to listen to people who have been married for decades than the world’s 50% divorce rate! Yes?

We also talked a lot about fighting the world’s definition of feminine, and pursuing what we were created to be– the difference between “submission”, and the better, more Orthodox way of “surrender”. Surrender looks like giving up control for intimacy, because fighting for control can rob us of our humanity. We talked about how to be truly feminine, we have to be what we were created for. No matter how hard our culture tries to blur the line between men and women, women can do the one thing that men cannot– they can nurture and bring forth life, whether that’s in the form of babies, friendships, art, or important causes. Instead of fighting to replace everything masculine with something gender neutral, we can own what is already ours, something that is more powerful than any of the other posturing and bravado we see shouted by the media. Orthodox churches, for the majority, do not struggle with the gender battle (ie., why can’t we have female priests? female readers? female deacons?), because we look at the altar and see Mary, the Mother of God, holding the highest place of honor that any human other than Jesus can have. She held the Life of the World within herself, and brought it into the world. She fulfilled the most important act in all of humanity, breaking the curse of Eve. She did not just give birth to a baby, she gave birth to what would save all of Humanity. All the other roles women have been fighting for pale in comparison.

Anyways, it was a wonderful coffee date, and I am so thankful to have this group of women who constantly amaze and inspire me. I have felt for the past few weeks that I am in the middle of a huge growth spurt, one that comes after many months of chaos and hardship. It’s easy to think that times of rest should go on for as long as we want, but I have felt that part of what it means to rest is also to grow. To take stock of so many things that have happened and how they have affected me.

One of the things I am currently processing (and, this comes last, but it is definitely a doozy!) is how God can be a loving God. I have heard of many who go through this crisis of belief, where they struggle with believing that God is truly Good, given all the evil that goes on in the world. Although I have experienced a lot of loss and death in my life, I have never had this crisis firsthand.

But I’m neck-deep in right now. Just a few weeks ago, I found out that our beloved foster boys, the ones who we left in CA with a permanent adoptive home, are now back in the system once more. We are in Dallas, across the country, unable to help them, unable to barely get a word in with their social worker, and it feels helpless and heartbreaking. Like truly gut-wrenching heart-breaking. Not a night has gone by since we heard the news where I haven’t cried myself to sleep.

And I think: God, these are your babies. You took away their earthly mother and father. You have not provided them with another mother or father. The system is their parent, and it is failing them. God, if you are not even choosing to protect your babies, who are innocents caught in the cross fire of adults who keep making mistakes, why would you ever choose to protect me?

I love that I was able to bring these raw thoughts forward today and have our mentor (who was also a foster parent, in addition to mothering her 5 children!) tell me that I can scream and shout these things to the Lord and He won’t love me any less. She told me to read the Psalms, where David spends chapter after chapter crying out in anger and anguish at the Lord. If these things pain me, they pain God much more, because He loves them more. Pain and suffering are not indications that we are far from God, or that He is not looking out for us. We do not believe in a “Prosperity Gospel”, where God only shows His love through earthly blessings and rewards.

Someone else also brought up their favorite part of Revelations, where the martyrs cry out saying, “Don’t forget about us and the blood we spilled!” and the Lord listens and gives them their say. Someday, even if it’s not soon, I know that our boys will be given a chance to be heard, and that the evils done against them by their parents will be healed.

I will continue to struggle and grow through these thoughts and frustrations, but I am so happy for a group of friends who can walk alongside me in these ways.

How Foster Care Has Affected My Bio Children

Gregory and Momma at beach in wavesThis has been one of those posts that I’ve been putting off for months, to be honest. Over the past 2 years of doing foster care, there are still so many parts of our story that are too muddled, too raw to talk about yet.

Some of these things I will never talk about in this forum. Generally, I have a rule of thumb when publishing anything foster care related– if I can do substantial good by writing it and putting it out there, then I will do it, however painful it might be to sort it all out. Come what may.

And so. So we press on.

One of the biggest concerns about ever embarking on the journey of foster care was about how it would affect our two biological children. Our first placement happened when AJ was just 5 months old, Gregory barely a 2 year old. Looking back, I’m still not even sure how we did it. Ever heard of postpartum hormones? The worst part about them is they are coming on the tail end of pregnancy hormones, so one sometimes forgets what “normal” ever used to feel like. Then you add a grueling/grisly house hunting experience, along with foster care. Sounds like a recipe for burnout and disaster, no?

It took months to even begin to realize how our family had been affected by our first placement. It’s also hard to determine what caused what, since our lives were in such turmoil with the house hunting/moving process. But both of our kids, despite their young ages at the time, definitely showed signs of being emotionally beat up. AJ, who was 11 months old when our first placement ended, finally slept through the night just days after. One day, he was waking 6 times a night, unwilling to eat or be soothed. A few days after the placement ended? He slept through the night peacefully and never looked back. It’s as though he’d been trying to, but couldn’t.

Gregory was 2.5 at this time and we actually didn’t notice the damage right away. But then things would happen, like a brief visit from our first placement, an argument between Jesse and I (there were quite a few during those recovery months), a lost toy. Like a thread unraveling, we started to see some of the ways in which it all had affected him. The hardest episode was over Christmas break, when our first placement came to visit. The moment the visit began, Gregory began to whine and cry, like the beginnings of a tantrum. Slowly, he retreated to his room, where he sobbed the rest of the hour. After the visit was over, I went in to scold him for being unfriendly, only to witness one of the most gut-wrenching sob sessions I had ever seen come from my small 3 year old’s body. He wasn’t kicking and screaming, he was just crying as though his heart was in pain. I felt panicked, because I had no idea what to do. Holding him didn’t work, offering him distractions didn’t work, and it didn’t seem like he was slowing down. Finally, by divine inspiration I figured out how to assure him in a way that made sense in his 3 year old mind, and it clicked. Within a few seconds, the sobs had died down, and he was willing to be comforted.

I remember one of the first days our 2 new placements, our 10 and 5 year old boys, came to live with us. All of them were jumping on the couch together, somersaulting and flopping on the cushions (actions we got to know all too well over the next few months). One of them got too rough, and all of a sudden I heard Gregory say in a stern voice, “NO. DON’T DO THAT. Get OUT of MY house!” He didn’t understand that his house was, without his consent, about to be shared for 8 months with 2 strangers. His playroom, about to be packed and put away. His Christmas with family, shared, his toys no longer just his, his mommy and daddy’s attentions, distracted and redirected.

And then I remember near the end of the placement, when the boys were leaving us every weekend to visit their family. It was during the 3rd weekend, when Gregory got in trouble right before bedtime. And then the sobbing began. The same sobbing that had occurred back at Christmas time. I recognized it right away, because it sent chills down my spine. Jesse was about to scold Gregory for his disobedience, but I said, “It’s something else Jesse, I just know it.”

After two minutes of sobs that threatened to tear him apart, where Jesse and I just stared helplessly, Gregory managed to say, “P-p-lease, p-p-lease, are you going to send me away?”

Jesse and I were stunned.

Are you going to send me away like A and N?” he said, wiping his nose, still crying, looking anxiously at us for the answer.

I felt sick, like someone had punched me in the stomach.  My heart was in pieces. We spent hours that night and every night after, assuring Gregory that he would never be sent away, no matter how much trouble he thought he was in. We explained that we were his parents, and I made a big deal about routinely mentioning how he was a baby that grew in mommy’s tummy. These were hard things to do in front of our foster boys, however, since things with their biological family fell through shortly thereafter and talking about Gregory’s security within our own family felt like rubbing it in their faces.

And, of course, all of this brought up questions from Gregory about why A and N weren’t with their mommy and daddy. We had to talk about how their mommy and daddy were “bad guys”, but that not all mommies and daddies are bad guys. To this day, I still hear him muttering under his breath about how “grownups are bad guys and might hurt us.” It breaks my heart, every time.

Every mom I’ve talked to who has young kids and is also doing foster care has this moment, where the horrifying thought creeps up and dawns on them– am I doing the wrong thing? Have I just traumatized MY kids by trying too hard to help someone else’s? It sneaks up before you know it. It’s also incredibly difficult to battle the fear that accompanies it.

When we first took in the boys, I feared the kind of influence they would be. I feared bad words. I feared sassy talk. I feared germs. I feared picky habits ruining my organic food/lifestyle dreams for my 2 babies. I feared that we wouldn’t have enough love to go around, that they would feel ignored or replaced.

And, at times, those fears would be validated. We did, in all honesty, have a few physical scuffles that made me worried to leave the boys alone together. We all got sick 8 times in the first two months. The boys were siblings, and some of their vicious bickering rubbed off on AJ and Gregory and has set some of their current behavior. I remember one time when Gregory was running towards Jesse’s outstretched arms for a hug, only for N to come up behind him, shove him out of the way, and get the hug instead.

But what I didn’t realize would be so hard would be them leaving us.

Turns out, all the “trauma” I worried about from the boys and their presence paled in comparison to how Gregory reacted when they were gone. To Gregory, one day he had two brothers, and the next day they were gone. Once, I went outside to find him holding one of their toys in the backyard, just sadly staring at a wall. “I’m never playing again.” he said. “Not until N comes back.”

I didn’t know how to tell Gregory that they would never live with us again.

Another time, when Gregory and AJ were fighting, I saw Gregory pull back, and, with a cold tone of voice, say, “It doesn’t matter. He’s not my brother any more. He’s just a friend to me.” Because that’s how it worked in his mind, based on the example set before him. Family isn’t something set in stone, it’s something that changes according to bad decisions people make.

Gregory has just recently begun watching more mature cartoons, the kind with real bad guys in them. As much as I try to limit TV in general and steer him towards bright and happy toddler shows when we do, he is drawn to the ones with good and evil displayed in all their monstrosity. When the dragon breathed fire at the command of the evil witch at Disneyland’s light show, he was enthralled, tense with anticipation, and delighted when Mickey saved the day. At the age of 3, he can explain in full detail why the Decepticons should be torn apart, limb by limb.

There are days when I grieve this fascination with bad guys, because I mourn those 2 years of innocence he missed out on.

Before he even knew my first name, he’d learned that mommies and daddies sometimes do bad things to their children, and that not all adults can be trusted.

Before he’d truly learned what a brother was, he learned that they could be taken away from him at a moment’s notice.

Before he’d learned the alphabet, he learned that his mommy and daddy were vulnerable and could, at times, appear so weak that they weren’t going to make it.

I know that those days of foster care are some of the reason that Gregory is so protective of me at this current juncture. Sometimes, in church, he tells me to sit down and take care of myself. He tells me I need help and that he’s the one to do the job. He tells me when I am looking tired and tells me to rest. During these moments, when he looks at me with such love and tenderness, I can’t believe that he is only 3, because it feels as though he is going on 33. I mourn that he is so wise beyond his years in some of these ways, because it makes me feel as though I did not protect him.

For me, this feeling of failing to protect my son’s babylike innocence has been the hardest thing to process about foster care.

But I recently ran across this quote from one of my husband’s favorite authors, G.K. Chesterton, where he defends the reading of fairytales amongst young children. He says,

“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

G.K. Chesterton goes on to make the point that children know that there is evil in the world. They have their own fears, they don’t need someone to introduce fear for them. What a fairy tale provides, however, is an answer to that evil. An adult that denies their child a chance to see true evil also denies them the chance of seeing that same evil defeated. Without evil, you cannot have someone to save the day. Without the dragon, you cannot have a knight to slay that dragon.

Or loving parents to embrace the boys mistreated by their biological family.

Or security in a home despite all of his toddler tantrums.

Or a brother that will always be there beside him no matter how many arguments they get into.

And then I realized that Gregory would have had all of these same fears eventually, even if we’d never done foster care. And I become so grateful that not only have many of these fears been voiced and put on the table, but he’s seen their quick defeat.

And when he looks back on this someday? I hope he looks back and feels the pain of all the children who have no loving parent or home, knowing deep within his heart that evil will be conquered, good will win, and that he is loved unconditionally.

And, if not, he has a trust fund set up that he can choose to either use for college, or for therapy, depending on which he needs more.

Just kidding.

Mostly.