On Bullying and Boundaries and Belonging

I don’t know what your life looks like these days but mine is bursting with the colorful personalities of four kids who bring a variety of preferences, peculiarities, and pet peeves.

One gets slightly enraged at the sound of chewing (pretty sure that’s genetic), the other oblivious to flapping molars.

One gets irritated with all the singing and dancing while the other enthusiastically belts out every lyric of The Greatest Showman.

One is meticulous about good hygiene while the other needs encouraged to wash off the funk.

One hustles out of bed in the morning and speed dresses (is that a thing?) while the other burrows deeper under the covers, savoring those last few minutes of shuteye.

And two certain cherubs are consistently L.O.U.D. and early risers. I’m not namin’ names but thankfully, they’re still contained in their tiny baby jails.

With all the differences wrapped up in each kiddo however, I have found one common thread woven through their diverse DNA: All four want to belong.

Photo by Becca Neufeld Photography at www.beccaneufeldphotography.com

Last year, our family experienced bullying for the first time. (I refer to the person who bullied as “Bee” in this post.)

Bee was in our home.

Bee sat at our table and enjoyed meals with us.

Bee played in our yard, twirled on our tire swing, and made slime with our kids.

We offered her encouragement and time and compassion. We wanted Bee to feel a sense of belonging with us, especially when conversations revealed that her home was not often a place of warmth and welcome. Despite some of our concerns with her occasional meanness toward Selah, both at school and in our home, we prayed to be hospitable and kind (and sometimes struggled to do both).

Perhaps in our naivete, we thought our open home would lead to a changed Bee–a Bee that could work through unresolved anger and begin to soften toward a Love far greater than our own.

A couple of months into 2018 however, we learned that her emotional needs exceeded our abilities and we made a difficult decision that wracked me with (false) guilt. After weeks of prayer, wise counsel, and ongoing conversations with school personnel, we set a boundary: Bee would no longer be welcome in our home until she provided a sincere apology and Selah came home with zero complaints about Bee’s aggression.

For our oldest, school no longer felt like a safe place where she could focus on subjects and friendships without wondering what Bee might do to her. Despite the many ‘tools’ we gave Selah to help build her resilience as she related to Bee, the attacks continued. While Selah felt supported by a few adults at school, her ongoing concerns fell silent on the ones who had the ultimate authority. As a result, home became her main place of belonging and we would do whatever necessary to ensure that remained so.

A few days after we set this boundary, Bee showed up at our front door, wanting to come in and play.

After consistently, aggressively, physically hurting Selah.

After writing hateful notes about Selah and passing them around to other girls.

After threatening to seriously injure Selah and another student.

After lying to teachers, faculty, and us about the extent of her behavior.

Bee still expected to join us in our home, as if her bullying had no effect on our relationship with her.

My response to her that day could be summed up in the words of Simon Cowell, “Um, that’s a ‘no’ for me.”  

I told her that we cared about her and wanted to have her in our home. I also gave her a choice to admit and apologize for the ways she had hurt Selah. (She yelled, denied any guilt, and stomped off the porch.)  

Some might think our boundary too strict.

Some might think our family unforgiving.

Some might think our family unloving.

To these I would say:

Love often sets healthy boundaries for the good of others even when others refuse to see the good.

Sometimes the best way to love those who bully is to set a boundary and offer them an alternative–an opportunity for them to own their actions–not another invitation for them to treat you with contempt.  

Bee was not allowed to hurt, taunt, and degrade Selah at school and then expect connection with us in our home. Our permission only enabled her to bully in our home, albeit more subtly. As the drama at school increased, maintaining status quo in our home seemed to communicate to Bee that we were okay with the bullying. We were inadvertently teaching her that she could intentionally hurt others and never be required to endure the relational consequences of her behavior. She could use and abuse people as she pleased and still enjoy the benefits of their company whenever she wished.

By allowing our relationship with Bee to remain unchanged, we risked emotionally disconnecting from Selah and breaking a sacred trust we’d spent a decade building. Refusing to set a boundary would have said to our daughter, “Your needs are trivial. Don’t speak up–even when someone relentlessly hurts you. No one will listen to you, anyway–not even your parents.” That was not the kind of message we ever intended to communicate.  

We care about Bee.

We pray for Bee.  

We choose to forgive Bee.

We want to see redemption and restoration in the life of Bee.

We love Bee.

Boundaries don’t make those statements less true. Boundaries don’t make us unkind. Boundaries aren’t rejection. Boundaries (in this case) offer protection and clear expectations for both girls. 

Until Bee is ready to confess and seek forgiveness, Wisdom tells us that our boundary must remain so that our home can remain a place of refuge and belonging, especially for the four we’ve been given to train and lead and raise.

Was there ever a time you set a boundary for the good of others? What was the response? How did you handle the situation?

Would be so good to hear from you! Your story might encourage another reader.

 

***I realize that bullying is a difficult topic that can elicit strong, complex emotions. Many families have endured far worse than we have, with tragic, devastating results. I have learned that even with all the anti-bullying campaigns and zero-tolerance zones, kids who bully get away with more than any well-meaning slogan aims to prevent. I highly recommend that parents continue to engage teachers and administrators, document every incident, contact the school superintendent and/or lawyer and/or law enforcement for advice, support, and resolutions, consider alternative schooling, and stay emotionally connected as much as possible with your kids, while keeping your home a safe place where they know they belong.

***Featured photo credit goes to Wokandapix at pixabay.

Two Words To Remember This School Year

I find myself talking to The Big Kids quite a bit these days. At 10 and 8 years old, they’re in my favorite stage so far–willing to ask me anything about anything. Topics range from Why Hair Grows There to How Systemic Racism Began & Continues.

Strange body odors? Check.

American politics? Check.

Atomic wedgies? Check.

Adoption and different abilities? Check. Check.

Jesus and healing and death? Check. Check. Check.

I’ve looked into their innocent brown eyes and assured them that no question is off-limits, even when I have to contort my face to keep from laughing at times.

I’m a big fan of this stage of parenting my pre-tween and tween. Their endless wonder leads to so many interesting conversations and I’m grateful to be present in the dialogue, to help them find the answers, or to simply say, “I don’t know” when they ask me things like, “Will Sam have Down syndrome in heaven?”

Sometimes I worry that my answers are too detailed, that I’m offering too many words, overloading their growing minds in my earnest attempts to educate or inform or encourage.

But they seem undeterred, eager for more.

My hope is that they absorb all the good words that I endeavor to use: the red letters of Jesus, the truths of Scripture, the reality of history, the meaningful song lyrics, the beautiful stories, and profound poems written by countless men and women all over the world. I want their tender hearts and minds to be so full of the truth that lies can’t find any space to burrow inside. I want to protect their impressionable ears from the hateful and divisive words that seem to greet each of us more frequently in our polarized society.

While I believe that the words my kids are absorbing here at home are good and meaningful and true, I don’t want these humans entrusted to me to be tight-fisted consumers. I want them to take what they’re learning here and share it with their neighbors and classmates and teachers and yes, even (perhaps, especially those most difficult to love.)

I want them to tell the truth and treat others with respect.

I want them to stand with the bullied and include the ones who wonder if they matter.

I want them to encourage others and make at least one true friend.

I want them to work hard and listen well and make the most of their educational opportunities.  

With all of the possibilities, I found it a bit challenging to choose just one phrase for them to consider and apply this year. But I finally did and it’s this:

BE KIND.

Photo cred: reneebigelow at Pixabay

That’s it. Nothing new or deeply profound.

When you meet a new classmate: Be kind.

When you see a kid quietly upset: Be kind.

When a student appears left out on the playground: Be kind.

When a student forgets her lunch: Be kind.

When a teacher seems in a bad mood: Be kind.

When a kid on the bus is being teased: Be kind.

When a kid seems different from the cultural norm: Be kind.

When you disagree with a classmate: Be kind.

When another student is rude: Be kind.

There are countless scenarios both in and out of the classroom where my kiddos can apply these two simple words with potentially powerful implications. Choosing to be kind will require different responses, depending on the need of the moment and the people present. Of course, I want them to learn and excel in school but I also want them to be aware of how they can include and encourage others, even when the easier choice would be to ignore, retreat, or retaliate.

And sometimes, these two kiddos are the ones who most need a good dose of their own kindness.

The Big Kids have a strong tendency to be self-critical. When they don’t meet their own expectations in some way, they tend to think negatively about themselves and once they move in that direction, they struggle to find their way back to the truth. I’m learning to give them ample time to process life, while offering heaps of encouragement and grace and love notes under their pillows to help chase away the dark thoughts. So, in their efforts to be kind to others, I also want them to remember to be kind to themselves–to extend grace to themselves, to rest in the love of God.

There’s a song by Andrew Peterson that speaks to this–one that I’ve played for them on the really rough days when music and lyrics offer more than I can. You can click here to listen.

Be kind, Kids. To others. To yourselves. That’s it.  

 

How about you? What is one idea/phrase/truth you want your kid(s) to hold on to for this school year?

 

  

3 Helpful Ways for Parents To Approach IEP Meetings

Remember that time you skipped and twirled your way into your child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting, stopping only to sign in at the office? You didn’t even realize you were humming “Happy” by Pharrell Williams as you took your seat at the table, where your child’s team of educators waited, the glow of halos above their precious heads.

 

 

Throughout the meeting, you threw your head back in laughter, your hands clasped together in joy as the team shared countless stories of the wonder that is your child. The only shock you felt was when you learned of the new and improved resources available for your child with different abilities.

Another hour of OT each week?” you cry, “Be still my beating heart!”

“Two extra hours of speech therapy? Surely, you jest!”

“A new aid to help with classroom engagement? STOP IT!” 

What’s that? Your IEP meetings don’t fit this scenario? Hmmm. Was it the halos? Were they too much? Was it the song choice? Not a Pharrell fan? I’ll get on that.

Oh, Parents. I see you. You’ve got additional considerations when it comes to educating your kiddo(s) with not-so-typical needs.

In reality, you probably sit at a table with a handful of *usually* well-intentioned, exhausted school professionals, who are *often* limited by district regulations, time, and funding. (Or they’re refusing to use the funding for its mandated purposes–a common complaint I’ve heard.) You work through each goal, swallowing lumps in your throat as the heat creeps up your neck and into your cheeks. You force yourself to maintain composure, while trying to determine whether the recommendations from these *mostly* dedicated professionals are realistic for your child.

 

Seriously, those nails are perfectly manicured. Where do I get some like that?

 

You wonder why The Team can’t provide the appropriate (number of) resources.

You wonder how that particular team member ever got hired. (Do they even like my kid?) 

You wonder if The Team will actually do the work as specifically outlined in the IEP.

You wonder what might happen if you advocate too little–will he get the services he needs? Or if you advocate too much–will she be ‘punished’ for your ferocity?

You wonder if the goals for your child are realistic.

And ultimately, you wonder whether any of these standards even matter, especially when you consider our great big world beyond the classroom–a world in which your child has more to offer than what’s contained in a meeting. A world in which all you really want to know is whether she will ever really belong, regardless of any IEP goal.

I’ve heard from many of you regarding the dreaded IEP meeting(s). Your negative, often maddening experiences have inspired me to think about what has helped me to prepare for and process these meetings in a way that feels empowering and hopeful. While I know there are many factors to consider within our specific IEP spheres, I’ve discovered–

3 Helpful Ways for Parents to Approach IEP Meetings:

  1. Determine your expectations. What are you hoping to gain from this time with The Team? Are you planning to work with them to explore appropriate goals for your child? Or are you already guarded and angry? Does it feel more like a battle to fight for basic services that he’s legally entitled to receive? Are you new to this whole piece of education, confused by your own role? Do you find yourself wondering if this meeting even matters when nothing seems to change anyway? When the system already feels stacked against your kid? 

When I take an honest look at my expectations, I am better able to address Sam’s current needs. Taking the time to work through my own anxiety (about his development, school, future, etc.) feels empowering and allows me to better collaborate with his team in a productive way. I am no longer a helpless victim at the mercy of my own frustrations or intimidated by a group of educators gathered around a cramped table. Rather I’m an informed, engaged, and thoughtful parent, willing to be honest and kind, and ready to be a strong voice on behalf of my son.

2. Keep the day open. Whenever the IEP meeting happens (usually mornings here), I try to keep the rest of the day ‘free’ of planned stressors. For instance, I wouldn’t schedule an IEP meeting on the same day as, say, a mammogram. Or a follow-up to a recent mole scan. Or a meeting at work in which some folks will be ‘let go.’ I know life is full and you’ve got responsibilities to consider but try to keep some space in that calendar square. This will allow time for you to process the meeting, record any concerns or questions that emerged later, and even create a follow-up plan, if necessary. Leaving margin also gives you a chance to decompress emotionally, physically, and mentally. You will likely need it.

I know some of you march into those meetings in full armor, ready to do battle, feeling like you’re the only one fighting for the needs of your child. When you walk out, your chainmail is mangled, your helmet smashed, and you’ve lost your sword. You’re worn out and angry from advocating, from having to handle the same abrasive team member, from proving to the school–the system–that your child is worth more than what’s printed on paper and that he is entitled, by law, to certain services and resources.

Maybe you tiptoe in, doubting yourself, slinking into the chair, bowing to the suggestions of professionals who don’t know your child like you do. But you’re new to all of ‘this’ and ‘they’re the professionals, after all’ so you smile and nod your head like a spineless puppet.

No matter how you enter and leave that IEP meeting, be sure to carve out time afterward so your mind and heart can take a collective slow breath. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.

3.) Remember the Truth: IEPs are used to measure and track individual milestones and skills, within the context of standardized charts created by various educators and researchers. IEPs are helpful in creating and assessing *reasonable* educational benchmarks. They give us a baseline for each student, while providing specific goals for kids to work toward, which can be helpful tools. But they are just tools.

 

 

IEPs and their meetings do not measure Sam’s value as a person.

They do not reveal his hilarious side-eye or how he runs to our neighbor’s door to greet him.

They do not indicate his ability to apologize, sign ‘sorry’, and hug the one he has hurt.

They do not record his laugh or dance moves or the delight he brings to our home. (Click here for proof.)

They do not show his interest in books or the tender way he bottle feeds his stuffed bunny.

When I’m tempted toward discouragement and frustration that his scores are consistently below *average* (whatever that means), I remember that IEPs aren’t designed to measure the whole value of Sam.

He is more than the sum of his (non) achievements.

He is more than the sobering black print on white paper.

He is more than some educators might *silently* believe him to be.

He may never jump with both feet in the air at the same time or stack the ‘right’ number of blocks the ‘right’ way. 

But maybe that’s okay. Maybe what should be measured can’t be found in those meetings. Or on paper.

While I’m so grateful for Sam’s team and their hard work in helping us to identify and implement appropriate goals for him, I’m learning that IEPs and their meetings don’t provide the whole picture of Sam—or who he’s becoming as a person.

So, to all of you parents and caregivers embarking on another school year and navigating those IEP meetings, I’m thinking especially of you these days. May you clarify your own expectations, make time to process, and remember the Truth that your child’s worth is not based on any meeting, professional opinion, or some predetermined measuring stick.

And if you forget, as we all do sometimes, send me an email. I’ll be here–ready to listen and help you remember.

 

 

***I realize that the IEP process [in public schools] varies widely, depending on state regulations, school districts, specific needs of individuals, personnel issues, finances, etc. There are so many factors to consider. As Sam grows and his team changes, my writing on this topic may shift. I am simply sharing what has worked for us–for Sam–in this season.

On Choosing Public School…Again

When kids began to sprout up in our home, I just assumed that Glendon & I would be the kind of parents who drafted an educational plan for them and THAT WOULD BE IT. I viewed our decision sort of like a tragically arranged marriage. We would determine their future education before their first words and sign a legally binding contract to seal the deal. No matter how terribly incompatible said choice might be, there would be no turning back. We would simply endure the horrors of our decision.

How foolish of me for being so staunch, so strangely committed to one way of educating. I’ve become the parent I didn’t expect: open to whatever schooling best meets the current needs of our family.

Last year, we made the decision to move from homeschool to public school. And we’ve hit the repeat button for this year.

There are lessons The Big Kids can learn in school that we cannot orchestrate at home.

There are opportunities for them to grow as students that we cannot provide right now.

And The Little Kids at home need me more engaged and ready to meet their demanding stages without the added time and pressure that it takes for me to plan lessons and teach. I recognize the privilege of this choice, especially when I consider the many families who feel stuck and discouraged with their only option.

Could the public (and private) school curriculum be stronger? Sure.

Are there things I’d change about the system? Yaaaassss.

Am I concerned about bullying (especially toward my kiddo with developmental delays)? Yep.

And don’t even get me started on the funding issues, particularly as it relates to race and poverty and life skill programs. That’s another post for another time.

There are plenty of things I’d change about the homeschool culture, too. It’s not all waking up when the Spirit leads and adventurous field trips on the daily.

With our decision–and the decision that many of you face each year–I have grown weary of the negative stereotypes that accompany our varied educational paths.

If your children are homeschooled, you must be sheltered and culturally ignorant and hate public schools.

If your children attend a public school, you must be godless and lazy and surrendered to the state’s ideals.

If your children attend a private/Christian school, you must be rich and exclusive and elitist.

I’ve lived each stereotype, where wrong assumptions were made about me, my family, and now my own kids.

I spent 11 years as a student in a private Christian school. Certain public school kids used the term “preppy snobs” to label me and others who attended. Their words stung, especially since my dad was a teacher at that school. I knew how deeply committed he was to the students and faculty, the tiny paycheck he brought home, and how hard he and my mom worked to keep the five of us enrolled.

We lived simply, without the latest styles or gadgets. Unlike most homes at the time, ours didn’t have cable TV—we had a pair of rabbit ears with foil, though. (All the praise hands!)

We wore hand-me-downs and on a rare occasion went to the dollar theater to see movies that most teens had seen months before at the regular price.

We didn’t take fancy vacations to exotic beaches or snow-covered ski resorts.

We were the slowest people in the checkout line at the grocery store–not only because we had 2 full carts but also because my mom had a wheelbarrow of *double* coupons to present. And this was before couponing was a ‘thing.’

In a school parking lot where new Mustangs, Volvos, and Jeeps rolled in, my siblings and I drove some seriously used cars, like our 1983 station wagon, whose hood flew off en route to school one morning. By the time I was a high school junior, I was lucky enough to drive our 1994 Ford Aerostar minivan to prom. Although, we didn’t call it ‘prom.’ We called it the ‘Jr./Sr. Banquet.’ (Because if Christian school kids danced, they may as well dance themselves right outside those pearly gates and straight to hell.)

Gotta love the internet! Found a picture of her. Isn’t she a beaut?

When we homeschooled, I noticed the furrowed brows and heard these comments, “Homeschool is terrible because you never make any friends. It’s not really school, is it? Are they getting enough socialization?” Thank you for your concern about our kids’ socialization–is that your kid there picking his scab and wiping it on the person behind him?

Now that our kids attend public school, I see the pursed lips and hear the pompous remarks, “The quality of education isn’t great…As a Christian parent, you are called to homeschool and Christian education…I’ve seen the village and I don’t want it raising my child.” Well, goshdangit. You’re just a boatload of good news, aren’t you? Thank you for reminding me that our job as followers of Jesus is to create Christian subcultures in order to avoid a dark world in need of our Light.

I think we can all agree that no educational system is perfect. Right?  

Can we also agree to speak with kindness toward one another?

Can we refuse to burden each other with guilt and shame over the choices we’ve made for our families?

Can we find ways to encourage each other in our educational endeavors?

Instead of [silently] criticizing, let’s support one another. Instead of deeming our choice best, let’s connect with those who educate differently and discover what works for them. Instead of making assumptions, let’s ask questions and learn from each other. And let’s remember that many families around our country and in our world do not have the luxury of choice.

So, here we are—bidding good-bye to homeschool. Again. At least for now.

In a couple of weeks, the Big Kids will walk out the front door, away from me and into a setting where their wonderful teachers will instruct them. They will be welcomed into a more formal classroom rather than scooching their chairs up to our weathered dining room table.

This transition still tastes bittersweet. I’ll miss The Big Kids each day but we are at peace with how God has led us. As a family, we’re learning how to walk by faith, to let go of our need for control, while trusting God to use this season—as He has every season—for His glory and our good.

What educational path has worked well for your kiddos? And how did you decide what was best for them? I’d love to hear from you!

My Dad’s Greatest Gift to Me

When I was 4 years-old, my family ventured down our street to join the neighbors for dinner. I tripped en route and my arms, apparently glued to my sides, did not extend and I fell–quite literally–flat on my face. Dad scooped me up, removed the embedded rock, cleaned my bloodied face, and gently shifted my nasal cartilage to its original position. I still have a cross-shaped scar on my forehead and a crooked nose to remind me of my clumsiness–and his compassion.

As a child born into a low-income family, Dad learned to be compassionate toward those who lacked finances and resources. When he was 10 years-old, his dad died suddenly, earning his mom the title of ‘Single Parent’ (to six boys) and the social stigma that came with it in the 1950’s. Between poverty and childhood trauma, Dad’s empathy for those in need began to swell. As he entered his teen years, he found tangible ways to support his mom, working long hours to contribute to her light paycheck and doing his best to stay out of trouble.  

Dad with 4 of his 5 brothers. He’s the second boy from the right. His mom eventually remarried and he gained another brother and sister.

After high school, Dad scraped together enough money for college and seminary to prepare for mission work with the Warao people of Venezuela. In preparation for this remote jungle culture and language, both he and Mom traveled to Costa Rica for linguistics training. During that year, Dad volunteered at an orphanage, where he connected with a boy named Ronny. Charmed by Ronny’s addictive smile and heartbroken over his traumatic story, Dad graciously challenged a stubborn, misguided mission board that ignorantly insisted, ‘You cannot adopt a child with black blood.’ Compassion defeated injustice (as it often must–even in Church culture) and that beloved boy finally became his son.

Dad & Mom commissioned by their pastor, prior to moving overseas.

While living in Venezuela, Dad built lifelong relationships with the Warao people. He got to know them while casting nets and pulling up fish, paddling in homemade canoes, and sharing stories around open fires. He learned their language and customs and humbly respected their ways. They welcomed him as their Bible teacher, mentor, and maybe most of all, as a trusted friend, willing to help carry their pain. On one particular occasion, he stood with a devastated Warao couple on the banks of the Orinoco and watched their tiny wooden box full of dreams and a baby, float away from their broken hearts. It was their seventh.

Dad on the dock, loading/unloading from a canoe trip with both American visitors and Warao friends.

After nearly a decade in South America, our family returned to the States. Eventually, Dad got a job teaching at a small Christian school, where his compassion moved through the classroom and down the halls. He encouraged those who struggled academically, welcomed those on the social fringes, and adapted his teaching style to those with different abilities. He was quick to speak Grace and unafraid to speak Truth to power–to be a voice for the ones who most needed an advocate.

After years of serving in the school setting, Dad carried his compassion into chaplaincy work, where he specialized in palliative care. He helped countless patients and families navigate the tumultuous road of grief and loss. Rather than comfort the distraught with empty cliches or religious platitudes, Dad found meaningful ways to be present, to create safe spaces for devastated humans to be their messy, broken selves.

Dad’s compassion extended beyond humans, too. He was a magnet for wounded or stray animals, helping countless critters who may have died otherwise. On one occasion, he let us kids keep an emaciated, oil-soaked kitten that my sister found stuffed inside an exhaust pipe–right outside our dentist’s office. We named the cat Lucky, of course. (Unfortunately, that 9 Lives thing is a myth because Lucky lived with us for only a few months before he was hit by a car. #tragicirony) 

Another time, Dad provided foster care for a Basset Hound named Charlie, whose owner had recently died. When the clock struck bedtime, this four-legged, floppy-eared orphan couldn’t bear to sleep alone so Dad slept with him on the couch to keep him from howling in grief all night.

My dad introducing Selah to Dundee, one of many exotic pets that thrived in Dad’s care.

Whether connecting with the Waraos, offering support for struggling families, or tending to wounded animals, every area of Dad’s life was (and is) marked with compassion–particularly his parenting.

 

Dad with his 5 kiddos, 2015. (Not pictured: excessive amounts of sarcasm and laughter. Also, frozen toes.)

Without judgment, he listened to my impossible questions about God and life and truth. He assured me that my doubts were okay and I wasn’t alone.

He was the one to whom I cried, “No! Oh my god! No, no, no!” the night I learned of my brother-in-law’s tragic and sudden death.

He listened to me rail against God and offered no easy answers–only a quiet understanding palpable through the phone.

He endured my rants against *Christian* institutions who believed burnout was a sign of ‘good ministry happening’. As a recovering people pleaser, I’ve appreciated Dad’s assurance that saying ‘no’ is vital for overall health and sustainable work.

My dad never really fit the stereotypical man. He doesn’t have a knack for car mechanics or construction and he never played organized sports. (Although, I’ve heard him tell people that he caught the javelin in high school.) While those skills certainly have value and I respect those who are competent in them, I didn’t learn them from my dad.

I did however, learn compassion.

He taught me to notice the lonely, the weak, and the beauty that blooms in those populations–if I’m willing to see it.

He taught me to weep with those who weep, to lean in to the ache of another.  

He taught me that there is no script for grief but we can choose to be present and tangibly support those left in its wake.

I close with a few excerpts from letters that my dad has written to me over the years. His empathy is woven through his words:

Dear Kate,

As your dad, who can only love with an imperfect love and who can only view an incomplete picture, I would control your life in such a way that you would be shielded from all hurt and pain. I keep reminding God (as if He needs reminding) that you’ve already had enough. I know He hears me and I know that you are the ‘apple of His eye’. And no matter what He allows, He will be our shield and defender, our rock, our shelter in the time of storm. I am praying for you now and in the tough days ahead.

May you strongly sense His everlasting arms.

~Dad (July 1997)

 

Remember that it is alright to carry your doubts to the Lord. He’s heard them many times from most of His children. He will not be shocked or angry. (November 1997)

 

Hey Kate,

Just want you to know that as always, I will be praying for you every day. I’m asking the Lord to give you peace about the present and the future. You will know the next step when it’s time to take it.

We miss you already but are content to know that you are serving the Lord so faithfully.

How we love you! (May 2000)

 

As your dad, I want to ‘fix’ what is broken but as a disciple of Christ, I have to leave that up to my heavenly Father. Please know that you are loved beyond words, by us and by all who know you–and by Him. Words will come as the numbness wears away.

For now, just know that we are with you.

Love,

Dad (October 2008, just days after our miscarriage)

 

I wish I could say or do something to ‘fix it’ but we all know how futile that attempt would be. There have always been times when I wished I could ‘rescue’ those I love from the injustice of life. I realize that statement implies that I have doubts about God’s goodness, His fairness or His love, yet I have learned through these many years that in spite of my doubts, I can still trust Him. Trust does not demand complete understanding.

We love you & Glendon more than life and we cherish our times with you and the kids.

Love,

Dad (July 2013, during a very difficult summer)

This weekend, despite the miles between us, I’m celebrating my dad and the compassion he brings to our family–and our world. I treasure this gift and I hope to use it well in my own life.

 

What characteristic do you most appreciate about your dad or male role model?

What is one meaningful memory about him that you’d like to share?

 

The One About Birth Moms

There’s a stigma that often follows the title “birth mom”–the woman who surrenders her rights for another to raise the child(ren) born to her.

Stereotypes might include:

Single.
Young.
Teenager.
Dependent.
Uneducated.
Foolish.
Poor.
Weak.
Emotional.
Incapable.
Naive.

Of course, any woman might identify with one of these labels at certain seasons in her life–one doesn’t necessarily have to be a birth mom–but these (negative) labels seem to be automatically assumed of birth moms.

“Was she a teenager?”
“Why’d didn’t she want him?”
“Why’d she give her up?”

I’ve heard these inquiries and more but I think they are the wrong questions to ask. They are not only inappropriate and unnecessary but they are also far too simplistic for the complex world of adoption.

The truth is that birth moms vary like the rest of humanity.

They are racially diverse.

They are poor and wealthy.

They live in subdivisions and subsidized housing.

They pay rent in small towns, rural areas, cities, and suburbia.

They wrestle with addictions and they strive to be healthy.

They are uneducated and they have multiple degrees.

They battle mental illness and they are of sound mind.

They are sixteen and they are thirty.

They are single and divorced and married.

They are already mothers and they are not.

They have hope in God’s love and they question His existence.

 

Photo cred: ritinhacorain at pixabay.com

Some are angry and detached.
Some are devastated and desperate.
Some are overwhelmed and terrified.

Some make their decision quickly and resolutely and some take more time to consider.

Some quickly leave their babies in a drop box outside a church.
Some slowly create a plan and choose their adoptive family.

Some prefer contact with their child’s adoptive family.
Some prefer lifelong distance.

Some cannot hold the one they’ve just birthed.
Some swaddle and kiss and struggle to release.

Some wrestle with guilt and regret.
Some live with total peace.

Photo cred: M Ameen/Vitamin at pixabay.com

In the story of adoption, I have discovered that the *Christian* culture tends to view birth moms as the villains, their children as the victims, and the adoptive families as the heroes. (Though I assure you, most adoptive families do not feel this way–despite how we are portrayed.) Church culture often praises the heroes for rescuing the victims from the villains.

Please hear me when I say: This is a false narrative. Damaging, even. We would do well to address it and challenge it, especially in *Christian* spaces where we preach redemption, forgiveness, and restoration.

Birth moms are often victims themselves, driven to make an incredibly difficult decision that they never imagined they would face. Regardless of the choices they made–or were forced into– on the road to pregnancy, they face obstacles and pain usually hidden from the public eye. Aside from the physical changes that come with growing a human, they also face public shame. They cringe at the well-intentioned but awkward, ‘Congratulations! When are you due?’–and the comments that follow after their victim is placed with the hero. They endure the labor, the hormonal ‘let down’ after birth, and the long road ahead with empty arms and a broken heart.

 

Photo cred: michydev at pixabay.com

While every birth mom has her unique experiences, here’s what I know of our kids’ birth moms:

They prayed.
They ached.
They wrestled.
They chose.
They wept.
They suffered.
They grieved.

And still do.

They are brave warriors, fellow image bearers of our Creator, and I am so grateful for their lives and for their trust in us to do what they felt they could not.

May we, who claim faith in a redemptive God, drop the labels, change the narrative, and see birth moms as women in a difficult place who need love, support, and loads of hope.

***Disclaimer: I realize that the relationships between birth families and adoptive families are complex and varied, depending on many factors: domestic/international adoptions, orphanages, foster care, adoption agency relationships, legal ramifications, race, history, family dynamics, etc. While there are universal issues related to adoption (such as loss, grief, identity, attachment), we must also recognize and respect the varied stories as we seek to support each person involved. I could not possibly cover every scenario in a single post but wanted to honestly share my observations and experiences with the birth moms and agencies from whom I continue to learn.

If you feel comfortable sharing a bit of your adoption story–whether you are a birth mom, adoptee, or adoptive parent–please post in the comments below. Or if you prefer to share privately, feel free to email me.  I promise to read and respond.

“But, he’s brown.” How Adoptive Families Can Respond to Awkward Comments

When motherhood chased me and finally caught me in the early months of 2007, I was stunned. Pregnancy wasn’t in Katie’s Carefully Crafted Master Plan, which included completion of nursing school and a solid job in the field before children arrived. I was 29 years-old and in no hurry to parent anything except our sweet pup, Sadie. If my biological clock was ticking, I never heard it.

Despite my total shock at the pink “+” sign and the emotional decision to surrender my years of nursing school, the arrival of my first born brought me deep joy. Less than two years later, another little one joined us.

 

 

As the white mom to white babies, I never heard anyone mention their skin color or question my role as their mom. People correctly assumed that these two kids belonged to the crazy-haired Caucasian woman pushing their stroller, the white female wrangling them at the grocery store, the haggard, pale lady feeding them crackers as they cruised around Target.

Remarks went something like this:

“Oh! She looks just like you!”   

“He’s obviously yours.”

“They look just like their mama!”

“Wow. You can tell they’re siblings!”

When we decided to adopt we were open to any color, culture, or gender. We knew that transracial adoption would be challenging for various reasons and would bring looks and comments from *usually* well-meaning people. But I wasn’t prepared for the intrusive questions following our adoptions:

Local Woman: Are you his babysitter?

Me: Um, I guess. He’s my son.

Woman: Oh. That’s weird. But he’s…brown.

Me: [awkward pause, trying to find words] Well, we adopted him.

 

Older female stranger yells as I enter a store with Sam: “OH MY GOSH!! IS HE ADOPTED?! WOOOOWW! WHERE’S HE FROM?!”

 

Man at the Store: Are they yours? Both of them?

Me with the two Littles: Yes.

Man: Huh.

Me: [Awkward silence hangs in the air as I offer no explanation this time.]

 

Woman At A Doctor’s Office: Where’s he from? Is he Asian? But he has brown skin. Why does he have slanted eyes? He looks so…exotic.

Me: He’s from the exotic land of the Northeast. [Because some occasions call for snark.]

 

Airport Security: I need proof that she’s yours.

Me: I say nothing but I do supply our adoption papers. [Because she’s brown, proof is required?]

 

 

I’m not sure why strangers feel the need to ask personal questions about our family or publicly declare our racial differences or subtly demand, “Are you their mother?” I suspect most folks are curious, overly friendly, or just plain ignorant. 

I also wonder if our culture might be obsessed with trying to figure out how to categorize people. When families don’t fit the tidy social constructs, particularly in matters of (ambiguous) race, people seem to want an explanation.

While the desire to understand familial connection is benign, the invasive questions can be hurtful. Many transracial adoptees struggle with identity and belonging, no matter how well-loved and warmly accepted they are in their families and communities. The frequent, public reminders that they are different from their adoptive family may further injure their (typically) fragile identity.

As a biological kid with 3 adopted siblings, I grew uncomfortable with the ongoing questions about our diverse family. I often felt like we were on display, especially in new settings as people tried to figure out whether or how we belonged to each other. To be fair, some strangers were engaging and respectful and our family has since learned to laugh about certain comments. But as a young kid, I resented being made to feel like we needed to prove the legitimacy of our family–as if blood and resemblance are the only defining qualities.

As a transracial adoptive parent (TAP), I feel that same resentment flare up on occasion. When I’m running errands with my kids, I am often asked to explain our varied skin tones. I feel like I’m on trial to prove to the jury that I’m their mother. My default response has been to people-please my way through the awkwardness, bowing to the interrogation of strangers. At times, I move to the offensive and overshare in order to control the conversation. I’m embarrassed to admit that there have been moments when I’ve felt obligated to share details, especially to those who gave financially toward our adoptions. I’m learning to let go of those expectations, both internal and external, and focus instead on what is best for the little ones I’m raising.

To the adoptive parent, I offer

3 Ways To Respond to the Awkward Comments & Questions:

  • Consider your kids. In your ongoing effort to help your kids feel a sense of belonging, their (current and future) feelings are your priority. The details of their diversity and adoptions simply don’t need shared with strangers, especially in public. While we adoptive parents might feel comfortable sharing when they are infants/toddlers, we must remember that those little ears are growing. Establishing healthy boundaries around their stories now can help build trust between you and them in the future. Their long-term emotional stability is more important than the fleeting opinions of others.
  • Creatively answer personal questions. Inevitably, people will wonder about the varied hues in your family but you don’t owe anyone an explanation for that. You can briefly state, “Yep, he’s my son through adoption” or politely say, “Thank you for your interest in our family but the details of her story are sacred and we’d prefer to keep it that way.” Or when someone asks, “Where are they from?”, you can respond by naming the city in which you currently live. Then graciously redirect the conversation in a way that protects your children and respects the curious.
  • Let your kids respond. If your kids are older and know their story, you can give them the opportunity to answer the questions. For example, a woman sees you with your 12 year-old daughter and says, “Oh! She must be adopted! Where is she from?” You could look at your daughter and say, “Would you like to answer this one?” Allowing your children to respond gives them agency as they determine who gets to hear (the details of) their story and when. Then support them as needed through the conversation.

 

 

I have felt the searing pain that comes with birthing a child and I have felt the bitter ache of receiving a child born to another. The roads traveled to bring each kiddo home vary with the hues of their skin, weaving a tapestry of colors worthy to be seen and valued–not questioned at every turn.

Though I labored differently with each child, I hold fast to the truth that these four belong to me. I am indeed their mother and I love them fiercely. I want to do all that I can to help them understand their identity and assure them that they belong. Following these 3 simple guidelines has been a good place to start. I hope they serve you, as well.

What is the most bizarre question or statement directed at your transracial family?

How did you respond?

Would love to hear from you!

 

 

 

The Way My Mom Loves

If you want a glimpse into how my mom loves, you can follow the clues on her hands.

They are practical: trimmed nails, subtle color, nothing dramatic. They are busy: often moving, ready to grab a broom, dust rag, or spatula.

Through the years, her practical and busy hands have pointed to her fierce love for many.

They’ve changed diapers and wrapped wounds.

They’ve held tiny, lifeless babies fresh from the wombs of the weeping Warao in the jungles of Venezuela.

Home on furlough before we returned to the jungle. Not pictured: my brother Jake, who came along 4 years later.

They’ve scratched my back, while the legalistic sermons lulled me to sleep in the pew.

They’ve hugged the heaving shoulders of her cancer patients.

They’ve jotted Algebra equations on jagged pieces of scrap paper.

 

Enjoying strawberry milkshakes with Selah at Parksdale Farms in FL.

They’ve tied shoes, pulled weeds, written poems, tickled piano keys, scrubbed floors, baked pies, hung picture frames, made beds, stitched pillows, ironed shirts, folded laundry, strummed guitar strings, mended clothes, and welcomed countless folks into her home.

Feeding the birds with Jude.

Then Parkinson’s came calling. He was quiet at first, then more insistent, peeking in windows and demanding her attention. For a decade, she pushed her tiny frame against the door, refusing to let him enter. But Parkinson’s will have his way. Eventually. He broke in and wracked her body with tremors and fatigue and a host of other complications.

But she continues to fight.

When energy permits, she creates more memories and takes fun road trips with my dad. She continues to encourage and pray for me and my siblings and their families. She makes an effort to communicate with her 12 grandkids. She plays Scrabble and wraps gifts and leads a Bible study in her neighborhood. She looks to meet the needs of others.

An adventure to Death Valley with Dad.

As with any progressive disease, the ticking clock reminds me that PD is not yet satisfied but I don’t want to grieve the unknown future–I want to savor the moments of the present.

I want my kids to craft meaningful memories with her that they’ll carry in their tender hearts for decades to come. I want them to know their Grammy, to see the strength of her spirit, to learn that no matter what horrors come knocking on their own doors, they can choose to live selflessly, to trust in the goodness of God in the midst of the awful. They can refuse the easy route of wallowing in self-pity. They can find another way–a better way.

This is the way of my mom.

Holding a snuggly Sam.

There may come a day when she will need a cane, a wheelchair, a stronger dose, a newer drug, a longer nap. Or more.

But not today.

Today she will arrive to our home. She will help feed hungry bellies, roll dice for a competitive game of Monopoly, and turn pages with snuggling babes on her lap. Her love will continue to pour out through her hands.

 

Chatting with a bright-eyed Eden.

I’m grateful for this mom who makes an effort to be with us, no matter the distance, time, or expense. She seems to find a way to ‘get there’, especially for significant events like the arrival of a baby, a move out of state, or a grandson’s surgery.

While I know our time on earth is limited, as it is for all of us, I’m thrilled to celebrate her this week and the way she’s nurtured me these past 40 years.

 

 

When the To-Do List Can Wait

Our home is a hive of activity these days. Many of you can relate, I’m sure.

The alarm sounds. Coffee. Quiet time. Exercise. Kids up. Breakfast. Work. School. Appointments. Diapers. Lunch. Naps. Writing. Meetings. Cleaning. Laundry. Homework. Dinner. Errands. Community investment. Emails. Social media. Whining. Snuggles. Sibling rivalry. School drama. Reading. Bedtime. Repeat.

Some days feel productive as I race through my to-do list, crossing off each item with fury and delight. (And if I complete a task that’s not on my list, I write it down and cross it out because I’m that person.) Other days, the FedEx guy finds me at the door with greasy hair and snot-covered workout gear. It’s as glamorous as it sounds. Don’t be jealous.

The weather is warmer now and the chirping birds and quiet bunnies remind me of our homeschool days, specifically our unit on butterflies. Despite the misleading title, that lesson didn’t start with a full grown Painted Lady. The slow process began weeks before when we ordered tiny caterpillars online, fed and nurtured them, took notes, and hoped for a few live insects by spring. (Side note: When I first typed ‘nurtured’, it read ‘neutered’. Can you imagine? Carry on.)

We discussed the four stages and watched as those caterpillars moved from cocoons to struggling butterflies and finally to flight outside. (Unfortunately, the eggs cannot be mailed). The gradual transformation was fascinating.

My six year old son, Jude, thrived in this unit. He marveled at the growing larvae and was entranced by the metallic cocoons hanging from their netted home. He drew pictures and wrote daily in his journal. But when his younger brother Sam teetered toward him, arms outstretched like Frankenstein, Jude set down his insect notes and welcomed the pause. He stepped away from his favorite unit to play with his brother. There was no sighing or eye rolling, even as Sam’s sticky hands grabbed his skinned knees, inviting him to play.

In my frustration, I often had to pry Sam from Jude, guiding my curious tot away from the table so my student could focus on his assignment. But really, I wanted to be done with school so I could keep moving forward with my day.

Then the familiar mental battle would begin,

“You shouldn’t wish away this interruption. It’s part of life.

[But I have so much to do. Have you seen The List?]

You shouldn’t be so focused on lists and ‘getting it all done’.

[But we need to get through this unit.]

Relax, connecting with your kids is more important in this moment.

[Aack! Shut up already. I don’t have time for this!]

Looking back, I see now that I was a student, too–learning (and often failing) to be okay with the morning routine taking longer than planned. With time and grace, I S L O W L Y began to accept the delays, to hold those chubby toddler hands rather than resent the tugs on my time. The only way to master these important life skills is to be given opportunities to practice them but for so long I had resisted more than I had received.

Jude’s example taught me patience as I watched him leave the table several times to accept a hug from his younger brother who insisted we pay attention to his antics. Jude showed me how to welcome the unplanned when he reached down to squeeze Sam’s cheeks, tickled him, and led him to his favorite toy. His sweet spirit gave me permission to accept that sometimes my work just needed to wait.

Metamorphosis: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, butterfly.

I often feel more like a chrysalis—trapped inside the hard shell of expectations and agendas, not quite ready to fully open up and celebrate the moments that look like interruptions. Not yet willing to welcome the *perceived* intrusions.

These days, my two little men have different school teachers, schedules, and units. They are discovering new and valuable lessons away from our weathered table. Meanwhile, I continue to loosen my grip on The Daily Agenda and to graciously embrace what often feels disruptive to my carefully crafted plans.

And I’m grateful for two growing boys who continue to show me how.

When You’re Waiting for New Life

If you’ve been awake at all this winter, you probably know that snow has buried the northern parts of the country. For those of us in the northeast, particularly my friends in the Poconos, this is not exactly the ‘usual’ spring we were hoping for.  

 

 

Well-meaning people chirping through their plastic smiles, ‘It’s not a big deal–it’s just the weather” would be wise to remember that ‘eternal winter in Narnia’ was considered a curse by the likes of C.S. Lewis. And that guy was a modern day prophet. I’m just sayin’.

 

A week prior to the ‘big snow’ here in March, we savored sunny 60 degree temps. As I played outside with the kiddos, I noticed our daffodils on the verge of blooming. I walked along the flower beds screaming internally, “Don’t do it!! Stay tucked inside!! For the love of God, NO BLOOMING!! Go back underground until you’re told otherwise!!” The excessive use of exclamation points cannot be underestimated here.  

 

 

But those stubborn blooms refused to listen. As the cold days returned, one flower peeked out, then another. And another. They seemed to arrive much too early and yet, they’re doing exactly what they were designed to do: bloom. Their hardy petals prove that life will emerge from the cold, dark ground. They are a resurrection of yellow.  

Many of us are still dusting off the snow from a rough winter—not necessarily a result of the weather–but due to the harsh realities of our lives:

An adoption that feels more like grief than joy.

Strained relationships.

The loss of a loved one.  

The weariness of advocating for your child with different abilities.

The painful realization that our sociopolitical beliefs impact our relationships, especially as they relate to racial justice and reconciliation.

The constant care of a child who needs extra support.

The ache of waiting to adopt.

For many of us, these grey months have left us wondering whether or how new life could possibly rise from the dirt. We cannot imagine there will be any beauty left to behold.

This Sprinter (see what I did there?), I discovered…

3 Steps to Take in a Difficult Season:

  1. Grieve. Mustering up the ‘choose joy’ mantra feels unhelpful to me in the hard seasons of life. We don’t have to ‘fake it ’til we make it’ (who wants to do that and how do we know we’ve ‘made it’?) or ignore the hurt or pretend to be okay. Christians often tend to heap theology–like coarse sand–on fresh wounds, because many don’t know how to respond to emotional pain. Let’s give ourselves–and each other–permission to be sad and to feel the pain of tough seasons without trying to candy-coat the hurt or frustration.
  2. Laugh. Grief and laughter are both necessary in difficult times. Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is a time for both. They are part of a more holistic approach to our healing. So, bring on all the funny memes, GIFS, comedy shows, books, and hilarious texts/messages from those we love! One bedtime ritual we’ve added in our home is to watch a few funny online videos with our older two. We snort with laughter, then read and pray together, which feels like the best way to end any day.
  3. Take a social media break. In this oft negative (and hateful) sociopolitical climate, stepping back from FB has been the perfect move for me. I post occasionally about what matters personally and I no longer scroll. Instead, I’m exploring local efforts where the Gospel is already at work in areas that are deeply important to me. I’ve joined a few online groups that add value to my life and work, comment occasionally on friend’s posts, and text/email/call people in order to stay connected. Maybe it would be helpful for you to step away from the screen for a bit, go for a walk, or meet up with a close friend.

I don’t know what new life looks like for you in the midst of this [extended] season of waiting. I do know that we can’t control outcomes or the weather (I mean, clearly) but we do have some agency. As we wait, we can take steps to help us better handle the difficult seasons and we can trust that new life will bloom.

What helps you through seasons that feel relentless and difficult?