Feb 27, 2015

Out of the Darkness

I don’t think I will ever be the mom who believes God’s original and best plan for my daughter was for her to be in my home.

I realize that’s a controversial statement, and perhaps many of the people reading this will feel something bristle inside of them as they think about their own precious children who came into their families through similar roads. But I can’t believe that a loving God who designed all of creation to be whole and in harmony and in relationship with Him would carefully knit my daughter together in her mother’s womb with the intention that she be wrenched away from the very spot He placed her in the earliest days of her life. That was a tragedy. She was collateral damage in this war-torn and fallen world. I do, however, believe that a loving God redeems and restores all broken things, and I have no doubt that He orchestrated untold miracles to ensure that our paths would cross at just the right time and give me the unspeakable honor and joy of walking out life as her mama. But there is a tension there, and in recent weeks, I’ve come to realize that this tension between His original plan and His redemptive plan has wrongly settled in my heart as often feeling that I’m really not the woman He meant for this job. 


She came out of anesthesia kicking and screaming… holding her breath without ever opening her eyes, she stiffened and clawed and then gasped and screamed. Then she’d hold her breath all over again and do the whole cycle once more. She was clearly fighting to wake up. “It’s normal,” the nurse kept saying to me over and over… looking at me with the unblinking calm of a woman who has seen far too many wide-eyed mamas panic as their children writhed and kicked and battled their way back to reality. “Just keep holding her,” she said. “You’re doing great, mama.”

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Sep 3, 2014

Love is War

She’s been clawing – literally, until I cut her fingernails – at my legs all day long. Whining and whimpering and the hours go so slow I sometimes wonder if the clock is moving at all. Cora entertains herself, like she does almost every day lately, and I squelch the feelings that I’m letting her down… that I’m not present enough for her… that I’m not putting together Pinterest-worthy craft projects to help her grow and learn and get ahead of the curve.

I stare at the dishes in the sink and the laundry in the hamper and the spilled juice on the floor. I vow to finish cleaning the kitchen even if I have to pry Alea off me 1,000 more times. I know the saying about letting the dishes pile and the laundry stay unfolded because babies don’t keep. Believe me, I feel guilt for this too. But I can’t breathe in a cluttered house and it seems like the only time she isn’t fussing is if I’m either holding her or not present to pick her up. I look at the clock again and calculate how many minutes are left until naptime. 3 hours. 180 minutes. It feels like the first time I’ve used my brain all day. The whining cuts through my thoughts again.

“Alea! You’re OK!” I bark the words, cringing at the harshness ringing the edges even as they come spilling out. Alea is unphased, and her fussing continues unabated, but Cora pipes up.

“Mama, be nice.”

“You’re right, I’m sorry. I just feel a little tired because Alea has been fussing all day long.” I sigh, feeling like a failure again. The critical voice inside pipes up, “Actually it’s been 4 months of fussing, but what does that matter… who speaks sharply to a baby who is going through the greatest trauma and transition of her life?!”

“Did you make a bad choice, Mama?”

“Yes, Cora, I made a bad choice. I need to use kind words, don’t I?”
“Yes Mama, but it’s ok. You can try again.”

I look at the clock. 175 minutes till naptime. I try again.

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Jul 18, 2014

In My Kitchen

He stood in my kitchen, chopping vegetables and preparing ingredients for a stir-fry. I rummaged through my refrigerator, finding more vegetables wrinkled and withered from too long in the bottom shelf. He rejected a few and accepted a lot and purposefully went about the business of cutting the red pepper into thin even strips. For a 15-year-old boy, he knew exactly what he wanted to create.

I watched in amazement. Because the last time I spent time with this young man we were at his orphanage in China.

It was only our second time to visit China – before we decided to move there – and we were serving at Sammy’s orphanage for a week. We were there for his 9th birthday, and we bought him his only birthday gift… a small package of M&Ms. I certainly could have bought him more, but that was the only gift I could think to give him that wouldn’t immediately become community property. If I remember correctly, he still chose to share them with all the other children.

He bonded with Jacob. In most of the pictures I have from that trip, he was nestled as close to Jacob as a boy could get. And at the end of the week when he was crying at the airport as we said goodbye, a reporter told him that if he stopped crying and did good in school, we would come back to adopt him. Sammy straightened his shoulders, wiped his tears, and bravely nodded.

And I wept. I wept harder than perhaps I’ve ever wept because it simply wasn’t true. We were 24 and 26 years old. There were several adoption requirements we didn’t meet, and at a bare minimum, we were 6 years away from meeting the age requirement. And all I could think of was the fact that this sweet boy would spend the rest of his days in an institution thinking that he just wasn’t doing good enough in school to deserve a family. And there was nothing I could do to tell him otherwise.

A year passed, but we hadn’t forgotten him. And one day I opened an email on a lark and read a brief – and completely vague -- description of a boy that was available for adoption that might be him. And it was. Back in 2009 I shared what happened next, and to be honest it remains one of the greatest miracles I’ve witnessed in my life. (Seriously, go read the story...)

And this week Sammy’s family brought him to visit. And he stood in my kitchen and made a stir-fry. And he shared bits and pieces of his story – hard memories from the orphanage and what it is like to have a family. “I never, ever dreamed I would ever get a family,” he said, shaking his head with the thankful disbelief that clearly still lingers. You know the verse that talks about how the Father loves to do more than we could ever ask or imagine? For Sammy, that was getting a family… something I know I still take as a given, despite what I’ve witnessed in life. This week I’ve been pondering how sometimes WE get to be the thing that someone else could never ask or imagine when we say YES to God, even when it is terrifying.

My heart is heavy tonight. Heavy for kids like those listed on this page who maybe don’t have the benefit of an advocate who can share insight into their personality and heart. Heavy for kids like Esty and Branch. Heavy for the friends of Sammy who still remain in the orphanage and are now too old to be adopted. It’s a lot of heaviness. But I also have so much HOPE because I know the One who makes burdens light, and I know the One who in His goodness and mercy never ever forgets a single lost sheep.

Because He brought Sammy to my kitchen this week.

May 27, 2014

A Birth Story

Motherhood always starts with a birth story.

Because no matter if you pull your baby out of a birthing pool with your own two hands, receive her from the arms of a social worker outside the hospital nursery, or pull him – screaming – from the arms of the orphanage worker who brought him halfway across the province and met you in a stuffy civil affairs room thick with the smell of stale smoke and fear, motherhood always starts in a monumental moment.

And you never feel ready. But in that monumental moment, a mother is born.

Read the rest over at No Hands But Ours... Won't you please join me there?

May 10, 2014

Mother's Day Sorrow

Tomorrow is my first mother’s day as a mama of two.  Despite the moments when there doesn’t seem to be enough of me to go around, I remain stunned by the enormous gift Alea has been to our family.  I remain bowed low in thankfulness that God cleared the way for her to join our family... that absolutely every door flung open and there were no hindrances in our way as we sought to bring her home.  Today we turned the music up loud as Cora danced and spun around the living room – shouting for Alea to watch her.  And as I saw Alea’s eyes lock on her sister and untamed joy spread across every inch of her face, I could only think, “How did I ever deserve such a gift?”  These two beautiful and perfect girls and their amazing daddy standing right in that room, twirling and singing and shouting of His goodness.  It’s more precious and spectacular than any Mother’s Day gift I could dream of receiving, and I want to hit pause on this moment… to pause it so I can marvel just a little bit more at the miracle that happened when God set Alea in our family six short weeks ago.

But while my heart swells with joy at the gift I’ve been given in these children, Mother’s Day might never be the same for me again because I realize that it carries a sort of sorrow with it as well.  I am Alea’s mama, but I’m not the only one.  I feel her first mama’s gaze when I look into Alea’s eyes in the middle of the night – dark and searching my face.  I feel her arms tighten when Alea snuggles deeper into my arms as I’m rocking her to sleep and sometimes even when she’s pushing me away.  I feel her breath as Alea’s face inches closer to mine as she sleeps.  I hear her voice in Alea’s laughter as we twirl in circles, and I think about the fact that though I’m not her first mama, I’m the first one who got to hear the precious sound of Alea calling for her “mama.”  I’ve stood on the ground where she last saw Alea and I’ve clutched the little hat that she last placed on our daughter’s head.  This woman is as real to me as anyone could be, and while I don’t know – and may never know – whether it was circumstance, tragedy or simply choice that resulted in Alea leaving her care, I do know that she will forever be a part of our story and will always have a place in my heart.

I know for Alea, Mother’s Day will likely always be bittersweet.  I hope I can grow to be the mama she needs and the one she wants and the one she loves.  It is one of my heart’s deepest prayers for both of my girls.  But I don’t pretend to think that I could ever replace her first mama.  I don’t even want to replace her.  I’m OK with the fact that I will always share Mother’s Day with another woman in Alea’s heart, and my only prayer is that I can love her well as she grieves and wrestles and wonders and hopes. 

I know in the deepest parts of my being that Alea’s first mama will always carry a little part of our daughter with her and I believe she is never far from her thoughts.  I don’t think any mother can simply walk away from her child and never, ever, ever look back, and so I imagine she carries the weight and the sorrow and the tragedy of her choice with her wherever she goes.    On this Mother’s Day, I carry her in my heart.  She’s a sister-of-sorts to me, and though I may never know her name, I feel like we are more intimately tied together than I can find words to describe.   My only prayer is that she will find comfort as she grieves and wrestles and wonders and hopes, and that she may be freed from any guilt or condemnation that she may carry and know nothing but the boundless horizons of God’s amazing love and grace and mercy.

Every day I fall more deeply in love with my precious new daughter.  She is a gift and a treasure in every sense of the word... I'm so incredibly grateful to be her mama, and while I'll never be sorry for that, I will always wish her journey to my nest hadn't started in such brokenness.  Jody Landers said it best... "A child born to another woman calls me mama.  The depth of that tragedy and the magnitude of that privilege are not lost on me."

Apr 19, 2014

Like Rain in the Desert

It seems fitting to me that it’s raining in the desert the night before Easter.

I can’t remember the last time it rained, and I’ve opened the windows wide in our house. Propped the back door open. I’m inhaling the scent of the air washed clean of all the dust it usually carries; listening to the quiet rumble of thunder. My babies are both asleep for now. It’s been a hard day, and I’m glad for the few minutes of stillness with this soundtrack of peace falling in heavy drops right outside the window. It is grace-for-the-moment, exactly what my heart needed to close out this day.

Alea doesn’t feel well… 17 months is a brutal age for anyone, I think. Caught between babyhood and toddler, your desire for independence far outstrips your communication skills or physical mobility. Throw in some teething (Seriously… the poor child seems to be cutting almost all of her teeth at the same time. She has gone from about 4-5 teeth to about 9 in the 3 weeks we have had her… with more on the way), an ear infection and fever, a total change in diet and schedule, and completely new routines, caregivers, and OhAbsolutelyEverything, and you have a recipe for disaster.

I’m amazed she smiles at all. As my sister-in-law said tonight, “If a grown-up went through what Alea has just gone through, they’d probably be thrown into a depression.” And for the most part, Alea is happy… or at least amused and distracted. But today she has really not felt well, and I’ve discovered in those moments when she is most distraught, most inconsolable, and most undone, that I am not the one she wants.

I’m not sure if she even knows the one she wants. She wasn’t held much when she cried in China, her nanny told me as much. (Who has time to hold crying babies when there are 30 cribs in a room?) But maybe she is mourning the loss of her nanny. Maybe it is her arms that she wants. Or maybe she just doesn’t know what to do with the intimacy of another person holding her when she is in pain. Sometimes as she’s crying and I cradle her, she arches away from me – pushing her body and her face… every bit of her being – to face in the other direction. So I set her down, thinking maybe she needs just a bit of space. But then her cry turns to a heartbreaking wail, as if she is saying “I know I said I don’t want you to hold me, but I can’t bear for you to walk away.”

And in those moments, I’ve come to realize I am in a fight for her heart. I need to woo her. To win her. To become her safe place in time of trouble. I need to teach her that she doesn’t have to be big and strong anymore. She can come snuggle in mama’s arms when her whole body aches. She doesn’t have to twist her head from side to side or pull on her hair to find peace. She can find shelter in my arms.

I know this is my purpose, my calling in this season of motherhood with Alea. Much like the endless nights I spent feeding and rocking Cora in the early weeks of life with her, this is the season of motherhood with Alea where I’m laying a foundation of trust, love, and responsiveness. It’s where the hard work of tilling the soil of her heart takes place… We knew coming into this journey that parenting a child who spent the first part of her life in an institution would look different – it is intense, it is therapeutic, and it is all-consuming. If Cora fussed a bit at 17 months, I knew we had the foundation of trust she needed for me to make a decision sometimes to just get dinner on the table, or to finish the project I was working on. But with Alea right now, she doesn’t have that foundation, so I am always on call. Part of wooing her and winning her heart is proving to her that when she needs something, we will be there to respond, and right now for Alea that mostly looks like being held for almost every waking hour of the day.

I don’t have it in me.

I’ll be honest, I don’t think of myself as an amazingly-gifted, well-equipped mama. (Does anyone? Don't answer that if you do.) I find myself saying a joyful Hallelujah most days at bedtime. I am distracted, easily bored with child’s play, and far too connected to the blasted-iPhone-in-my-hand-at-all-times. In my own estimation, I feel so far from the mama I believe my girls need, and yet I’m the one they have. Especially when it comes to Alea, I’m shocked that she is mine. I know the paperwork process of an adoption is overwhelming for some more than others, but to me it isn’t that bad, and I can’t tell you the number of times I pause and shake my head in wonder that with so little effort on our part, the Chinese authorities entrusted her to us… forever!

It’s a miracle like rain in the desert the night before Easter.

When we got our Travel Approval to pick up Alea, I made a little video to announce our big news. I’ve not been able to get the chorus of the background track out of my head for months, and tonight one line from it continues to echo in my head… “Let the rain wash away all the pain of yesterday.”

I’m so glad I don’t have to have it in me.

I’m so glad he comes in like a rainstorm in the desert… flashes of lightning and rolling thunder. Desert rain is slow and steady at times and torrential and powerful at others, just like his love for us. His love fills the cracks in the driest places and seemingly overnight something blooms in what seemed like dead ground. Sometimes it is just enough to pull the dust out of the air and everyone is thankful for the relief, but sometimes it is extravagantly, ridiculously, absurdly more than we could ask or imagine. Sometimes we have boats rowing down the main streets in our town and children splashing in puddles as deep as their knees. And sometimes his love overtakes us like that; it swallows us up and fills our dry cracks and gives us a reason to stand in the backyard staring straight up into the downpour with our arms stretched wide and our mouths open… dizzy from the kaleidoscope of heavy drops falling down on us, mixing with our tears of joy and sorrow and washing away all of the pain of yesterday.

I don’t even need to have it in me.

It’s been hard these last few weeks, and I have a feeling it is going to get even harder before it gets better. But I know that the God who sends a desert rain the night before we celebrate his resurrection is in the business of bringing life after death, and I am trusting him with this journey. He is going to do something new in Alea’s heart, and He is doing something new in mine too. He is breaking off the dead, tearing out the sorrow, finding the deepest hurts and wounds and putting his finger right on the place that feels the most raw… and though it hurts, he is pushing us together and we will heal as one. Our hearts are being stitched together. She is mine and I am hers and He is our Father who stitches together beautiful things out of our broken pieces.

I’m only thankful He is in me.

This Easter has found me doing more of the liturgy of the ordinary than anything focused on Holy Week. Laundry, rocking babies, snuggling with my big girl, calling doctors, washing dishes, making bottles. I’ve missed all the services our church offered in celebration of Easter – things I would have liked to have attended, as I’m someone who loves the ritual and celebration. If Alea isn’t feeling better in the morning, we probably won’t even make it to Easter services. But despite my lack of formal observance this year, I’ve found myself more thankful than ever for what this season means. It’s a dark week. The crowds roar “Hosanna” on Sunday and “Crucify Him” on Friday. It doesn’t seem possible that it could end well, and in the middle of the darkness and death and destruction it feels foolish to hope for new life. But as I hold my broken-hearted little girl, sensing more and more the depth of her woundings, I find myself emboldened by the unlikely promise of the Easter story. My Jesus is in the business of redemption and restoration. And he will not leave her like this. She may not wear the legal label of orphan anymore, but he isn’t going to leave her with an orphan spirit either. Those angry and snarled roots of darkness and death and destruction will be removed by the one who makes dead things alive, and they will not hold her back from the LIFE he wants her to have. I don’t know how we will get to that place of healing – it may be quite the journey – but I have the utmost confidence and peace that we will get there together.

He rains in the desert and in the desert of our hearts. He fills the broken places and the cracks in the ground and our cups to overflowing. He will give me all that I need to be a mama to my girls, and He gives me every reason to foolishly believe in his plan for redemption of each of our stories. Easter is a promise of new life, so it is fitting that it is raining in the desert the night before Easter. I can hardly wait to see all that grows.

Photo Credit -- The incredible duo of Sandy Puc and her son Nic photographed our group of families the day we met our children.  These pictures were taken in the first few minutes after we met Alea.

Apr 11, 2014

Lean In

Lean in baby girl.  Snuggle close.  Here let me help you find your fingers in the dark; I know they comfort you in a way I cannot yet.  It’s ok.  We’re on this journey together, and we’ll get there together.  I’m learning you, and as I see my reflection in your dark eyes – studying me with the same intensity I saw in the very first photo I ever glimpsed of you – I know you’re learning me too.    

It’s hard to believe three weeks ago, we hadn’t met.  You’ve been a part of my heart for so long, it just feels right to finally have you in my arms.  You feel familiar, even in the all the newness.  And it’s surprising me how quickly you’ve become mine.  I think I’d know the sound of your sleeping breath in the dark now.  As I write this, I can picture the tiny little dimple that magically appears on your left cheek when you smile wide.  I know your smell and the way your forehead feels when you press it against my lips for a kiss.  I’m starting to know the difference between your “I’m fussy” cry and the “I’m hurt/scared cry,” and I’m starting to know what might make you happy if you need a pick-me-up (outside, bath, bottle, rice crackers, other food, or graham crackers.  Did I mention crackers?)  We’re learning each other.  It will take time for both of us, but you’re mine and I’m yours, and I’m thankful baby girl.
These early days haven’t been easy.  I’m not going to sugar-coat anything because someday you may want to know as many details of our journey to each other as I can remember.  (And since this is a blog, other people considering the same journey and reading this may need honesty rather than frivolity.)  But as I have kept saying to your daddy, it could be so much harder.  You’ve taken to us so well already… the first few days, you seemed so “flat.”  We didn’t hear you cry for at least 3 days.  But then the fussiness started.  I think perhaps you realized you finally had a voice, and you’ve been practicing using it.  We’ve done our best to respond – to show you that you’re precious and that your voice matters.  But mama’s tired, sweet girl, and I find myself looking forward to the days when your smiles outweigh your whimpers.  I know they’re ahead.  I see glimmers of joy in you already.  It’s there… it just needs more time to take root.  And that’s OK.  Take your time, sweet girl.  We have all the time we need. 
But the rapid swing from flat to fussy means only good things to me… it means you’re learning we’re your people and that we care about you.  I see evidence of that even in your moments of joy.  You reach to be held by us if someone else has picked you up.  You smile wide when your daddy walks in the door after work.  You reach out in the dark while you’re sleeping, and if you feel me there, you settle back into dreamland.   So while the fussiness might be taxing, I know it means your heart is being knitted to ours. 

The trip home was brutal… but again, it could have been so much harder.  You and Cora slept on and off for much of the long flight home.  We had a pretty long layover in Houston where we saw some friends and family… and then after too much drama and thanks to an angel-in-disguise ticket agent (and probably a few of mama’s tears), we snagged the last seats on the last flight home after ours was canceled.  We got home at midnight and promptly bathed everyone and crashed for a solid 7-8 hours.  The first night home always makes weary travelers think jetlag won’t be a problem.  The next 4-5 days laugh at them.  We’re still in jetlag fog, but even in that, we’ve managed to get out of the house for ice cream, the park, Target, and a Bible Study, where you sat on my lap while I had grown-up conversation with my tribe.  I had big plans to never leave the house with you, but you seem happiest when you are on the go.  The world is so BIG, and you seem to know there’s much to be seen.   Evening is the hardest… you fuss and whine from about 4pm till we put you to bed, and the last two nights you’ve woken every 30-45 minutes until midnight or 2:00 am, and then you finally and solidly crash for the rest of the night till about 7. 

I’ve decided the best way to get through this is to accept the fact that I have a newborn.  You may be 17 months, but you’ve been in our family for less than 3 weeks.  So emotionally, I have a 3 week old.  When I treat you like I would a 3 week old, and set my expectations accordingly, we all have a lot of peace.  And the thing about newborns is they don’t stay that way forever… so I know this will only get easier with time.  And like I said, baby girl, we have all the time we need.

Our social worker visited today for our first post-placement visit.  She offered nothing but encouragement and said she sees only good signs in your adjustment, attachment, and physical condition.  We have your first pediatrician appointment next week.  I know they’ll say you are a petite little bug, so I’m probably going to have you wear your “Though she be but little, she is fierce” t-shirt.  Shakespeare had you in mind when he wrote that.   We know you have some catching-up to do, but so far we see nothing but determination and feistiness, so we’re excited to see who you will become in the next six months.

So lean in baby girl… I’m your mama and you’re my girl.  You aren’t alone anymore.  You aren’t fighting by yourself.  You have a daddy who knows just how you like to play, a sister who can make you smile, and a whole family and community who loves you like crazy.  Snuggle close and take a deep breath.  You can rest now. 


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