Our fifth child came to us the day before Thanksgiving wearing a black coat two sizes too big. The hood pulled up over his ears gave him a “tough-guy” look and he kept his head down and did not speak more than a syllable for the first hour. The plan was for him to stay for a five-day respite over the Thanksgiving holiday, but he seemed so completely closed-off that I thought, “Oh my, will I be able to love this child—even for five days?”
I have loved him for four months now, and I call him “our fifth child” even though he is fourth in age order, and we do not know how long he will be ours to love. Loving him has been easy and terribly hard. It was the dogs that first enticed him to take off that coat and play so that we could see those twinkling hazel eyes and hear his contagious laughter. In those first few days we discovered his wild energy and his adorable, half-intentional sense of humor. I learned how hard and fast the mommy instinct kicks in when you tuck a child into bed who doesn’t know you, but has no choice but to depend on you for everything.
After five days (that seemed so much longer), I dropped him off at an unfamiliar school and drove away—sobbing and begging the Lord to guide is future. Later that morning I got a text asking if we could keep him longer. If you have read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, I’m sure you remember the moment when Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace are heading into the strange, frightening land of Camozotz and Mrs. Whatsit gives them each a gift to help them through the trial they will face. To Meg she says, “I give you your faults.” Of course, this infuriates Meg at the time, but by the end of the journey we all understand—sometimes our greatest weaknesses are deeply connected to our greatest strengths (and vice-versa). This has certainly proved true for us, and I often thought of Mrs. Whatsit during those chaotic first weeks, and imagined her saying those words to me, “Lorna, I give you your faults.”
One of those faults that gave rise to strength in this situation is that Greg and I have always struggled to manage details. Some of you may be among the friends or family to have gotten a frantic call from us in our early years because we had planned to go out of town and forgotten that we had a dog. Thank you. We have grown up a bit, and we work tenaciously to compensate for our natural lack in this area, but it is still a constant struggle. Along the way, however, we have learned to have loads of grace with one another and have become really good at altering our plans on the fly. Flexibility is an asset in our case born of deficit, but it served us well when we got the message on that cold Wednesday afternoon when my mom had just moved in and we had two sets of company on the way that a six-year-old boy needed an emergency respite placement—in one hour. It also served us well when we were asked (twice) if we could keep him for a couple more weeks, and then for an indefinite amount of time.
A six-year-old boy was not our plan. We had dreamed of fostering and adopting since we were engaged (18 years ago), and, so, had had plenty of time to pray, consider, read, seek counsel, etc., and we were firm on providing a home for a child or children younger than our youngest biological child. We still don’t know if we did right in accepting this placement. Am I saying too much in admitting that? Perhaps, but I don’t know how this story could be real if I did not say it. In the moment of decision, we could see only a precious, vulnerable child who had grown to trust us, whose history did not include the behaviors which were most frightening to us, and who had been accepted by and blended well with our biological children. We had weathered a few “storms” with him including prolonged yelling, hiding and physical aggression toward our biological son. We felt peace that God had given us the strength and patience to deal with those things. We couldn’t see then how deeply our youngest two biological children would be affected introducing a child of their own age with a history of trauma into our family. I’m sure that we still don’t know.
The three “littles” now are five, six and seven. Our seven-year-old (boy) has experienced a degree of secondary trauma through bearing the brunt of his younger brother’s aggressions and by feeling displaced from his role in the family. Even as we watch the two boys bond beautifully, we are still dealing with deep emotional confusion and insecurity in our Ethan. Our five-year-old, Elodie, has become a frequent “third wheel.” She also tends to be the target of criticism when our newest young man is struggling with his own confused emotions. Both Ethan and Elodie have been exposed to ideas that we would have preferred to shelter them from until they were older. Yet, both have also gained character traits that, if they persevere in them, will prove invaluable in life. I have seen Ethan grow from approaching conflict with complete self focus to begin to sacrifice in order to make peace. I have been amazed by his ability (when he chooses to employ it) to lead his younger siblings in play so that both are included. I have watched our littlest peanut grow more independent and confident in herself—whether or not she has her brothers’ approval. I rejoice when I hear her say to one or the other who has said something unkind, “I’m not going to worry about you saying that, because it isn’t true!” I have also been grateful for the way that older siblings have stepped in to help her find her place when she feels left out. I have mourned with Ethan and Elodie as they struggled with feeling like they had “lost” each other, but also treasured watching them realize that “each other” was a gift to be cherished. I had never before heard them call each other their “best friend.” In these and so many other moments, anxiety and hope battle within me daily.
Neither could we see at the beginning of December how deep our attachment would grow to the sweet little tornado that had entered our lives, and his to us. How can I describe to you the first time that he played with my hands in church (as all my little children have done) or how he has just started to hug and snuggle on his own initiative? About hearing him ask, “How many days have I been in foster care?” (more that 365) and knowing the helpless frustration behind the oft-repeated words, “I’m tired of this!” So much more…holding him like a baby when the loss of a dog triggered loss upon loss that he cannot understand. Hearing him ask me to help him pray. I just heard the words “I love you” for the first time, and the stuffed puppy that we gave him for Christmas sometimes calls me “Mama.” He has come so far in his ability to handle conflict without exploding or running away. He has made significant strides in kindness, generosity, self-control and respect. He no longer wanders restlessly from place to place when he has free time, but plays in a settled, focused way. He laughs often, plays and works hard; loves exuberantly. Still, he is often angry. He can be mean (but then, so can my other children—so can I), and that meanness is most often directed toward the most vulnerable member of our family. What will that look like in a year? In ten years? I do not know. And I do not know whether I will even have a choice about whether or not I am the one to “mama” him through those years. Still, the choice weighs on me. As a wise friend recently said to me, “We carry our children in our hearts.” This is so true—whether or not we have carried them in our wombs.