My youngest, Jordi, was three months old the first time he spent the day at a hospital with us. We were there for his two-year-old brother’s first EEG, a procedure that required very early rising and lots of waiting. Nervous about all of the germs that could be found in hospital waiting rooms, I did my best to only take him out of his carseat to nurse, or when the crying caused the receptionist to give me the side eye. I never actually looked in her direction when he started to fuss, but we are moms, and we can feel a side eye directed at our children a whole room away.
Jordi was six months old when we towed him to the two-hour developmental assessment. Seven, eight, and nine months old at the follow-up meetings. He was 11 months old when his big brother’s diagnosis finally came and since then he—his big sister too, when she was not in school—has been to all manner of clinical settings: sometimes being told to keep quiet, sometimes being given a chance to play, all the time bearing the weight of my anxiety and the unfortunate way I let a good or bad day at our very expensive and time-consuming therapy dictate my mood. I’m not proud of this, but I remember so much of his first year of life only for what I don’t remember about it.
It was about 18 months in to life as special needs parents when I realized something very important about this work. We were at therapy with his big brother, and I took Jordi with me to the bathroom. As we washed our hands and caught each other looking at our reflection in the mirror at the same moment, I thought about the number of bathrooms, waiting rooms, therapy rooms, and office rooms he had been in. Yet there he was, smiling back at me and making silly faces in the mirror, like there was nowhere else he would rather be than on his mama’s hip, delighting at the sight of his own adorable face. And it hit me, I was not just a special needs mom. My husband and I, we weren’t just special needs parents. We are a special needs family.
“It’s been too long since I’ve had a date with Harper,” my friend Kendra said over text message. “When can I take her to coffee?” Kendra has two boys in college and one teenager driving herself to school. She is a decade or so ahead of me on this motherhood journey, but always stops to look back and help.
Would I be too eager if I responded, What are you doing right now? I thought to myself. Probably. I didn’t want to sound that desperate for someone else to entertain my six-year-old for an hour.
“We are wide open Friday morning—no school, no therapy, and no visits for the foster baby! Would that work for you?” I sent back.
“Friday it is. I’ll pick her up at 9 a.m.!”
It was 7:45 a.m. that Friday when Harper started asking when Kendra would be there, and an hour and 15 minutes’ worth of anticipation commenced. I guess we were both desperate for someone else to entertain her. At 9, off they went, Harper with her booster seat and unicorn purse in hand, Kendra opening the door of her car so she could climb in. They went to Starbucks and had chocolate milk and breakfast sandwiches together like old friends.
Later that night, Kendra sent me a text message telling me some of the funny things Harper had told her about life: that she wants to be a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader when she grows up, that Mars is red because it has iron dust all over it, and that she is really good at the “favorites game.”
Yep. I thought. That sounds just like a coffee date with Harper. And then the next text came in.
“One more thing … I asked her what the best parts of her life were, and if there was anything I could be praying for. She said that her life is pretty good right now, but that I could pray for *Jamie and Mark, because they are working really hard right now and they really need God to help them.”
“She did?!” I texted back, followed by a few crying and heart emojis.
“She really did.”
Jamie and Mark* are the young parents to the precious five-month-old foster baby in our home. We talk about them often, praying for their safety and, in the most honest yet kid-friendly language we can, talk about why they can’t take care of their little girl right now. Harper has seen my husband and me at low, anxious, and stressed points in the last five months, and she’s heard conversations about circumstances that she didn’t even know were possible until we brought home this baby girl. I have wondered often—and other people have even asked me—if we are doing the right thing by our biological children, exposing them to a lot of hard topics and, in the midst of our own fears, letting our worst selves come through at times. We already had full plates with three young and busy children, did we just let everything drop completely by adding foster care?
But then, as I read Kendra’s text, I realized something a lot like the moment Jordi and I were making funny faces in the mirror: I am not just a foster mom. My husband and I are not just foster parents. We are a foster family.
I’ve only been in this parenting gig six and a half years, and in that short time I have worried about everything a mom worries about, from fevers to bad friendships to bad attitudes. I have spent many, many days worried about all the ways my kids’ lives are not perfect, the things that are hard or inconvenient or simply not like a lot of their peers. I’ve worried when we’ve had to leave places early to give their brother a break that they will resent us. I’ve worried about all the invitations we’ve had to decline because, at this point, I can’t manage all four children in places without a fence. I’ve worried if they will wonder why they have so many siblings if taking care of them seems so stressful to their mama at times. I’ve worried about how they will interpret words like homelessness and jail and how I will appropriately answer their questions about the WIC office and the constant shuffle of social workers in our house without making any human being seem inferior in any way.
Worry has been my M.O.
But when God gives me moments like these, when I see the resiliency of children and the pure faith they have in humanity—their parents included—I am reminded that we are a family, in every sense of the word. And God has not called us to work that He intends to use to break us or to make us resentful. He has called us, all of us, to good, hard work; to things that will force us to trust Him and pray to Him and that will ultimately, hopefully, make us a little more like Him. My daughter didn’t ask for prayer for two hurting people out of a heart that’s been filled with her mother’s worry. She asked for prayer out of a heart that Jesus is teaching more to than I ever could.
Life is not always simple, it’s not always stress-free, and many days give me plenty of cause for more worry. While we do our best to meet each of our children where they are, to protect them when they need protecting and process with them when they need processing, I am still certain we will fail at times—and that they are going to have great stories for their therapist about their childhood someday.
But when the worry creeps in again, when all the things that don’t look perfect or feel risky or have no clear resolution want to take up too much room in my heart, I go back to this: all of us are in this together. And God intends to use all of it in all of us.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy
Photo of the Blackburn family by Sara Dawes.