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.

A Transformer Birthday Party

Transformers Party cupcakes

When it came time to pick a theme for Gregory’s 4th Birthday Party, the choice was obvious. Ever since moving to TX, he’s been obsessed with Transformers (he actually asked me why there wasn’t an icon of Optimus Prime next to Jesus’ at church! AGH!).

The day of the party, the weather couldn’t have been better. 79 degrees and sunny, with just a bit of fall crisp in the air. We held the party at a park just a few blocks from us, which was perfect because we ended up having 7 kids and 7 adults– a little too much for our townhouse. The kids all came dressed as superheroes (one girl insisted she was “PRINCESS Flash” because her parents dressed her in her brother’s old costume!). Thanks to all the shopping had on sites like https://skytechlasers.com/, they were equipped with everything kids need to have a blast together; nerf guns, laser pointers and hand held telescopes to spy on the other team. They “shot Decepticons” with nerf guns, played on the huge playground, and even jumped in a Bounce House left behind by a neighboring birthday party which said we could use it for the last hour!

Beautiful Richardson ParkTransformers Party foodTransformers Party Birthday Sign

Gregory got a Bumblebee costume from Jesse and I as his birthday gift. He adores it, naturally 🙂Transformers Party BumblebeeTransformers Party candy bags

Instead of a cake this year, I decided to go easy on myself and just make cupcakes. Gluten free mix can often be a bit crumbly, so sometimes it’s hard to “shape” a cake.Transformers Party cupcakes close

 

Gregory was in heaven. He’s a birthday party kid, all the way.Transformers Party Candles

Gregory Blowing out CandlesHappy Fourth Birthday my sweet Gregory!

It’s Been A Hard Week

Gregory sleeping in living room

I think the title and this picture of Gregory passing out on our living room floor say it all. It’s been a hard week! Allow me to count the ways for a minute.

1. Ebola was discovered, not 5 miles from where we live. It’s easy to say, “Don’t panic, it’s all gonna be fine!” when you don’t live at Ground Zero, right?

2. My computer spazzed out all week before sending sparks and smoke from where it connects to the charger. I’m taking it in to the Mac Store tonight, but a part of me is worried they are going to give me a bill for hundreds of dollars, making it more cost effective to buy a new one. Cost effective or not, I don’t have hundreds of dollars lying around to spend on a computer at this point.

Losing my laptop wouldn’t be such a bad thing if I didn’t depend on it everyday for my online teaching job. But I do! I’ve already had so many tech issues in the last couple of weeks, it’s been infuriating. The software for the class doesn’t like my 6 year old Mac, so I’ve been having to use my husband’s 7 year old Dell, which, although it still runs, crashes often and since the WiFi doesn’t work, I have to plug in an ethernet cord like it’s 1999. The ethernet cord is also nowhere near my desk, so I have to sit on the couch and hunch over to get near the laptop’s mic to teach my students (giving me a giant neck-ache by the end of the class). On one of the days, the outlets in the living room decided to stop working suddenly (stupid old apartment!), so, with 5 minutes to spare, I was yanking out the internet modem and sprinting for our second ethernet hub in the back bedroom, logging in right as my class started! Talk about stressful!

3. I just found out that my brother, who finished his ROTC training at Gonzaga in May, is getting deployed sometime within the year (even though they originally told him he’d be stationed permanently in the US since he’s military intelligence). I have mixed emotions about this. I’m glad that he gets to serve our country, and he won’t be on the field fighting, just stuck behind a computer somewhere, but it means he will be gone for close to a year, if not more. I already have one other brother who has been in the Navy for 5+ years and is getting out in September. Instead of having the whole family together again at holidays, it’s going to be trading one sibling for the other. I also kind of feel like our family has served ENOUGH time for one decade? Can’t I just have my brothers back already?

4. A personal matter back home presented itself, making me very sad and stressed out. I can’t get into details because of the people involved, but let’s just say, my Momma Bear syndrome is on high alert and it’s draining.

5. I got into a car accident last night! On my way to yoga (where I was desperate to go and de-stress myself), one of the street lights at a MAJOR intersection was out. It took me 15 minutes just to EXIT the freeway, and another 20 to get through the light. And then, once it finally was my turn and I went to turn right, a group of pedestrians went to cross the street, so I stopped to avoid hitting them. Which meant that someone impatient hit ME from behind. Luckily there was really no damage to my car, but I have his insurance info just in case.

6. Someone bought an item from me on eBay and then decided to turn into the B*&@& from Hell. Even though I have offered her a refund plus shipping, I told her I didn’t agree with her assessment of the item. Apparently, that sent her over the edge, and she wants me kicked off of eBay. Ha. Ha. Hahaha. Luckily, the customer service team has been super supportive, acknowledging that every once in a while they get a crazy person like this, and that the best thing to do is ignore their emails until the case is closed. 7 more days and counting. Can’t wait until it’s behind me!

7. Last night wasn’t the only night I missed yoga due to unforseen circumstances. On Wednesday, I bought some gluten-free cookies from Aldi, and it turns out they are chalk full of potato starch. I ate two, and two hours later, I was doubled over in pain. I couldn’t even stand up– just had to lay down and let it pass. So, apparently, I really AM that sensitive to nightshades, and I should just never eat anything processed ever again. I’m already off of ALL gluten, dairy, chocolate, and beans. But now I have to crack down on the potato stuff a little bit more to make sure I don’t accidentally poison myself again. This is actually pretty difficult, as most gluten-free stuff uses potato starch or flour in some shape or form. I just wanted a cookie to help deal with my bad week. Is that too much to ask?

 

Looking back over all of these, they are the epitome of first world problems. I have a computer to myself, which is why I am mad that it broke. I have an online job where I don’t even have to COMMUTE, which is why I rely on the internet. I am scared about ONE case of Ebola, when there are entire families being wiped out by this thing. We don’t depend on our car for anything more than grocery shopping and convenience, so the car accident wasn’t life changing in the least. My brothers get paid lots of money to serve our country.

All of these tough things are a result of first world blessings that I enjoy, so even while I know they are all tough, I acknowledge that I am very fortunate. We have a few friends coming into town for the weekend, and it looks like fun times ahead for the next few days. Then, next Tuesday I get to fly home and see family in CA.

Have a happy and restful weekend, everyone! We need it!

 

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.