Adoption Story, Part 1: Vague Feelings, Specific Decisions

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This is the first part of a 3-part series about our son’s adoption, which was just finalized last week. 

***

“Who knows, really, where dreams begin? Perhaps they first take shape in the unknown realms of sleep or in the far corners of our consciousness, gaining size and substance off in the distant wings of awareness, until one day, just out of the corner of your eye, you see it – the hazy shape of a new idea that is suddenly too big and insistent to ignore.”

–Katrina Kenison, The Gift of an Ordinary Day.

***

It started as a gnawing at the back of my mind, vague feelings that flitted through my brain like moths around a porch light.

“I don’t know what, but I just feel like there’s something more that we should be doing,” I’d say to my husband as we sat on the couch at night after the kids were tucked into bed.

This started in the spring of 2015. Our family had been happily settled in Vermont for four years. Erick was halfway down the road to tenure in his job as a professor of economics at Middlebury College, and was about to begin his sabbatical year. We had four daughters, between the ages of two and seven. I was busy at home with the girls, but also found time to maintain a blog and write bi-weekly columns for our local paper; I’d recently completed a draft of my first book. Life was good.

Maybe that’s why I was feeling unsettled: because life was starting to feel too settled. I start getting twitchy when life gets too comfortable. In my experience, comfort is the start of a spiritual death spiral: Life feels easy, so I stop paying attention, I stop caring as much, I fritter away time, I lose my edge, and my soul curls up and goes to sleep.

Or maybe it’s just that I was turning 40 that September.

But Erick felt it, too. Our approach to life is shaped by our Christian faith, so when we both started feeling these stirrings and rumblings we didn’t attribute them to something we ate, or something we read, or turning 40; we figured that it might be possible that God was trying to get our attention.

We talked, we prayed, we thought, we talked some more.

“I just feel like there’s something more that we should be doing.” The question was: WHAT?

This wasn’t about making ourselves feel better, earning pats on the back from others or from God. It was more about getting outside of ourselves, sending love out into the world in a fresh, bold way. Like Miss Rumphius in Barbara Cooney’s picture book of the same name, we wanted “to do something to make the world more beautiful.”

This was not the ideal time to add something more to our life, which was already quite full. Four young children kept us running, and also limited our bandwidth.

Not only that, but in January we’d be traveling across the country to spend the semester in Berkeley, California, where I’d homeschool our two school-aged daughters for the first time while Erick did research at his alma mater, UC Berkeley.

Oh, and did I mention that we were in the process of buying a new house in Vermont? This house was part of our vision of living closer to the land, raising animals and growing more of our food. It sat on 12.5 rolling acres. The only problem was that the house itself was a mess, requiring a down-to-the-studs total renovation. And the garden plots and animal pens? They didn’t exist. We put our current house on the market, authorized a contractor friend to handle the renovations on the new house while we were away, and spent hours over at our new property shoveling dirt and lugging the stones we uncovered.

I realize that all of this may seem at odds with my original claim that life was getting “too comfortable.” But this is the kind of climate in which I thrive, when life is full of love and purpose, and big dreams are being followed – just as long as I have enough coffee, chocolate, books, and quiet alone time to recharge my deeply introverted self.

Still, even with all that was happening, both my husband and I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something else we were supposed to be doing.

Then one afternoon I opened our local newspaper, and the front-page story brought everything into focus. The story was about Vermont’s opioid epidemic and how it was causing a massive increase in the number of children placed in foster care; between 2014 and 2015, the number of Vermont children taken into custody increased by 75%.

There are children out there who need homes, I thought. We adore children, we’re a stable family with plenty of love to give, and we have a home that we could open to more children.

I discussed it with Erick, and it seemed so glaringly obvious, it was hard to imagine why we hadn’t thought of it before. Fostering or adopting fit our particular skill set, was something our family could do all together, and the Bible – on which we base our lives – makes clear that faith-in-action involves caring for orphans (and all other disenfranchised peoples.)

First, though, we had to go on sabbatical and then move into our new house in Vermont. We agreed to spend the intervening months thinking and praying about foster care and adoption.

So we went to California. The entire time, it felt like foster care and adoption were stalking me: In books and articles I read, in interviews I heard, in email updates from friends, I kept bumping into stories of children who needed homes and the families who welcomed them.

After we were settled into our new house in Vermont, we began pursuing foster care. Erick was drawn to foster care as a starting point, since it’s often a temporary situation: The goal of foster care is to reunify the child with his or her birth parents. Erick thought this might be a way of “easing in” instead of cannonballing right into the pool of adoption.

We filled out some paperwork, met with a social worker from the Vermont Department of Children and Families (DCF), completed a home study (basically a tour of our house with an emphasis on safety), and were added to our county’s list of potential foster families.

And then we waited. We waited and waited. Even though the Vermont foster care system was (and is) overloaded, we received very few calls about children needing placement, and none of those calls met our lone criteria: That any child we took in be younger than our youngest daughter, who was three at the time. (Our daughters have a strong sense of birth order, and we didn’t want to shake things up more than necessary.)

It was our first of many experiences with waiting, but honestly, I didn’t feel frustrated or anxious; I felt relieved. As usual, there was a lot going on in our house. The homeschooling that began as a temporary situation while on sabbatical had turned out to be one of the best parts of sabbatical. Our two oldest daughters wanted to continue homeschooling, so not only were we adjusting to a new house, but we were all getting settled into a new school routine as well. In retrospect, it’s hardly a surprise that some of our daughters weren’t enthusiastic when we introduced the idea of fostering a child: They’d had to adapt to so many changes over the past months, and now we were throwing a baby at them?!?

Truth be told, the idea of getting a call that a child needed a home today felt a little overwhelming to me, as well.

We used those months of waiting to do more research on adoption and foster care. We met and spoke with multiple people who had adopted and fostered, we read books and articles, and we continued to talk and pray.

The more we learned, the more it seemed to me that fostering might not be the “easing in” scenario that Erick had envisioned. Yes, it can be a temporary situation, but it’s also extremely wrenching for all concerned. Foster care placements typically happen very quickly, as the result of a family trauma. And while a foster child would live with our family, there were limits at how much they could be part of our family. (I could not, for instance, homeschool a foster child with my own children, but would be responsible for transporting them to their current school.) There would be regular supervised parental visits, in pursuit of reunification. And that desired-for reunification meant that this child, to whom my own children would grow deeply attached, might have to leave us.

I think that foster families are heroes, and I am honored to count some of them as my friends. We have kept up our foster care certification and it remains something we might consider in the future. But based on where our family was at, foster care looked like a more confusing, difficult, and emotionally draining scenario than straightforward adoption. In adoption, at least, I figured that the child entering our home would be more clearly our child from the outset.

I discussed this with Erick, and we spent a lot more time talking and praying. (You’re probably sensing a theme here.) He was just starting the process of applying for tenure, so he had – to put it mildly – a lot of things on his plate. By this point, I was feeling confused: It had seemed so clear that opening our home to a child was something we should pursue, but it just didn’t appear to be working out. The foster care system, which seemed less and less right for us, wasn’t exactly knocking down our door. Our own children were lukewarm on the idea. Adoption felt like a big, scary choice. Maybe I’d misunderstood what we were supposed to do.

“I just wish someone would drop a baby on us, so we’d know for sure!” I moaned, more than once.

In the summer of 2017 – if you’re counting, that’s two years after we first felt nudged towards adoption – I went on a weekend retreat in the Vermont mountains. Just me, some books, and my laptop. On the agenda were resting, writing, and doing some serious praying about adoption.

I’ll be honest: At this point, I fully expected God to give me a pass. I thought I’d pray about adoption, and God would say, “You know what, Faith? You’ve given it a good shot, but it’s just not what I want your family to do right now. Guess you must’ve heard me wrong the first time.”

Now, this might sound a little woo-woo, so I want to be clear: I am not in the habit of hearing voices, certainly not the voice of God. In fact, most times when I’d like to hear directly from God, He’s maddeningly silent. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve felt that God was giving me direct, clear instructions. This was one of those times.

I prayed alone in my room in the mountains. I waited for God to give me a pass. And instead I heard — as clearly as if God was sitting right next to me: “Keep going.”

To be continued….

Adoption Story, Part 2: The Next Right Thing

Adoption Story, Part 3: The Thing With Feathers

Beauty on the Driveway

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For the past 65 days, one of my lifelines has been a quarter-mile strip of sandy gravel. Its surface is mostly white, except for the places where we attempted to patch the potholes with cheap grey gravel. From the look of things, the potholes are winning.

My lifeline has been my driveway.

Our family has developed a daily routine around the driveway. First thing in the morning, while I’m fixing breakfast, my husband takes the dog for a run several times up and down the driveway. After breakfast, I strap the baby into a chest carrier and set out with my daughters for a single pre-school lap up and down the driveway – me walking, them usually on bikes. In the late afternoon, when the baby wakes from his nap, I put him in the stroller, put the dog on a leash, and walk as many laps up and down the driveway as time permits until dinner. Sometimes I’m joined by my daughters, sometimes by my husband, but often I’m alone.

The driveway gives us exercise. It allows us to breathe in fresh air and soak in Vitamin D. It takes us to the mailbox, which holds the treat of letters from the outside world or packages of online purchases more often these days.

But the greatest gift that the driveway gives me is beauty.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

Why Keep a Garden, Chickens, or Children?

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This will likely be a short column, because we are in the midst of putting in our garden.

I have a complex relationship with my garden – as, I suspect, do many. Starting around March, a feeling that has lain dormant throughout the winter begins to stir in me: panic. Suddenly, I feel the urge to start drawing up a planting schedule and ordering seeds. This feeling intensifies as the days lengthen. By the time we start planting, usually in late April, my panic has been replaced with a lingering guilt. I feel guilty if I’m not out working in the garden when the weather is fine. When the forecast calls for rain, I am almost always relieved; nobody would expect me to be out working in my garden in the rain, would they?

Yet I will tell you that I love gardening.

This year, our gardening season has overlapped almost exactly with the COVID-19 quarantine. I hear that more people are planning to put in gardens this year, driven perhaps by the desire to have a food source that doesn’t involve navigating grocery stores, or inspired by more unscheduled time at home. But I wonder how many people shared this thought along with me, as I pulled on my garden gloves and picked up my shovel: Finally! Something I can control!

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

The Greater Good

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In order for me to have time and quiet in which to write this column, my husband took all five of our children to ride bikes around their grandparents’ neighborhood.

Once upon a time, this would have been a normal occurrence on a Sunday afternoon, but not today.

This is the first time I have been alone – really and completely alone, without a single member of my family in the house – in over a month.

This is the first time my children have been in a vehicle, the first time they have pulled out of our driveway onto the main road, in over a month.

“I forget what it’s like to ride in a car!” exclaimed my eldest daughter as they prepared to leave. “How do we do it?”

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent.

Comfy Chair Wars

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I’ll be honest with you: It’s not easy for me to focus on writing this column. Last night, we turned the clocks ahead one hour, but the baby seems not to have noticed. And it’s 46 degrees and sunny outside, with only a few patches of snow on the ground. (If you’re not a Vermonter, that’s amazing spring fever weather this time of year!) I’ve sent my family off to open barn at the sheep farm, and about the last place I want to be is inside forcing my exhausted brain to transcribe coherent thoughts while the ducks are having a party on the lawn outside.

But these signs of spring give me hope that we may be approaching a truce in the Comfy Chair Wars of 2020.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

Pajama Games

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Now that we have a new baby in the house, one of the first questions I get asked (on rare occasions when I appear in public) is: “How are you sleeping?”

The implication is that, because babies are known for waking multiple times in the night to eat, my husband and I must not be getting a full night’s sleep. This is true, but it’s nothing new: My husband and I haven’t gotten a full night’s sleep in almost thirteen years.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

Of Hospitals and Hawks

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One thing I’ve learned over the past few weeks is that we are able to endure a great deal more than we believe is possible. Life is not a benevolent tutor, handing down lessons one at a time in order of increasing difficulty; instead, life often feels like an opponent in a boxing match landing a punch in your ribs and then throwing a jab to your eye while you’re still catching your breath. The remarkable thing is how many of us remain in the ring. We may be hanging on the ropes, bruised and battered, but we don’t go down.

This is why, when I found the mangled carcasses of two of our chickens (the rooster in the shed, the hen on a snow drift next to the coop) after having just switched places with my husband at the bedside of our ten-week-old son (who was beginning the second week of his second stay at the University of Vermont Medical Center in less than a month) – on the same day that my husband discovered fraudulent charges on our credit card – I simply thought, “Of course: Another predator.”

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

How to Thrive

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I have never been a big New Year’s person. As an introvert, I’d rather be curled up at home in pajamas with a book than at a late-night party. The transition from one calendar year to the next doesn’t excite me much, and resolutions have always struck me as futile attempts to delude ourselves that a new year will bring automatic personal renewal.

But this year, as 2019 becomes 2020, I’m doing something I’ve never done before: I’m choosing a word to focus on for the new year. The word is THRIVE.

My word for the new year is a rebellion against the diagnosis handed down to our infant son, but it’s also a resolution for our entire family.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

A Still Small Christmas

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I hesitate to assume that there’s such a thing as a “typical” Christmas, but if it exists then I feel quite confident in stating that this has been a very atypical Christmas for our family.

As some of you may know, I have spent the past five days in the pediatric inpatient ward of the University of Vermont Medical Center with our 7-week-old son. This was completely unexpected and sudden. Our entire family – including all four daughters – had driven happily up to Burlington for some scheduled testing for the baby. We’d planned to have lunch and look at holiday decorations after what we assumed would be an hour-long appointment. But, to quote Joan Didion, “Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” And in that instant, we were being told that the doctor was concerned about our baby’s growth trajectory and wanted to admit him to the hospital for “failure to thrive.”

So, without any preparation or planning, without a toothbrush for me or extra clothes for the baby, and with a long list of pre-Christmas plans and to-dos that was going to require sudden and extreme revision, I found myself ushered into a pediatric hospital room. I found myself discussing who-takes-the-girls-where-and-when logistics with my husband (whose birthday was the following day.) I found myself groping through my own dashed expectations as I tried to explain to four teary girls what I knew of the immediate plan, and how little idea I had of anything beyond the next couple of hours.

This is not a medical drama, so I will very quickly set your mind at rest about our son: He is fine. He was tiny at birth and has always been a robust spitter-upper. His pediatrician has been monitoring his weight since birth, and everyone was pleased with his steady gains until his spitting up increased dramatically after a routine outpatient hernia repair surgery. His weight gain never stopped or reversed, but it slowed. After a couple of days of testing at the hospital to rule out Big Scary Things, he was diagnosed with severe reflux, which we will manage at home until he outgrows it eventually.

But I didn’t know the end of the story as I sat in our hospital room that first night, trying in vain to sleep in a pull-out chair while my freaked-out baby fussed beside me and nurses came and went all night long. The next days would be the darkest of the year; this made a certain narrative sense to me. What I couldn’t quite manage was to find the sense in our situation – I couldn’t figure out where God was in the whole thing.

Even though you know better, it’s so easy to fall into thinking that life should reward the good and punish the bad. We are adopting our son, not to earn brownie points with any person or deity, but because we love children (this one in particular; he’s our son) and we wanted to provide a good home for a child who needed one. Since his birth, our sweet boy has not had an easy road: Each of his seven weeks of life has brought some new health wrinkle – none deeply serious, all treatable, but most of them involving a degree of disruption and discomfort for him and for the rest of our family. All of this is outweighed by the extravagant amount of love the little guy has brought into our lives. Still, the temptation every time we hit the next hurdle is to say, “Really, God? This kiddo has been through so much; can’t he just get a break? We’ve all been through so much; would it have killed you to make this just a little less hard?”

On that first night in the hospital, I looked out the window at a narrow strip of dark winter sky barely visible between the buildings opposite our room, and my heart screamed, “Where ARE you, God?”

A passage of the Bible that I’ve always loved for the beauty of its language is 1 Kings 19:11-12. The backstory is that the prophet Elijah has been doing everything right, risking his life by warning the Israelites and the corrupt King Ahab and Queen Jezebel to turn back to God. In response, Ahab and Jezebel kill all the other prophets and threaten to do the same to Elijah. Elijah escapes into the wilderness, where he is on the run for forty days and nights until he reaches a cave on Mt. Horeb.

11 Then He [God] said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. [New King James Version]

When Elijah hears that still small voice, he knows it’s God, and God gives Elijah instructions about what to do next.

It took me three days in the hospital to realize that the answer to my cry, “Where ARE you, God?” was: Right here. It took that long because God’s voice didn’t boom down from heaven, there were no chariots of fire, comets, flashy miracles, or apparitions. But there was a still small voice – a series of them, in fact.

God was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire:

God was in the nurse who, while tenderly giving my son a bath, told me how she’d switched from geriatrics to pediatrics seven years earlier, when she learned she couldn’t have children.

God was in the young man from Patient Transport who, while wheeling my son down to a swallow study, told me how he drives his mother an hour to her haircut appointments in our town. (“She used to go with my grandma, but after my grandma died, I started taking her.”)

God was in the doctor from radiology who, observing me walk the halls for an hour as the barium solution moved through my son’s digestive tract, ushered me into the staff break room. “There’s a nice, big window,” he explained.

God was in the gentle hands and kind words of the countless doctors, nurses, and staff throughout our stay who counseled us and brought bottles, warm blankets, white noise machines, and mobiles to make my son more comfortable.

God was in the faces of the hospital patients – the really ill ones who passed us on gurneys in radiation, the other children on the pediatric floor – and their caregivers.

God was in my parents, who took our daughters at no notice and provided them with love, security, and fun.

God was in my husband, who couldn’t have cared less that his birthday had been overshadowed, and who drove an hour up to and back from the hospital numerous times to bring me clothes, toiletries, and Chipotle dinners.

God was in my daughters, whose primary concern was never their own plans, but the fact that they were separated from their baby brother.

God was in the stunning sunrise in the strip of sky between buildings on the morning of the darkest day of the year – a reminder that there is always light in the darkness.

And God was in our baby, because this experience taught us that he needs us, and we need him.

Since this all happened days before Christmas, I was thinking of another baby, too: A New Testament baby who was the embodiment of the “still small voice” in 1 Kings. Isn’t that just like God? He doesn’t show up like you’d expect, in the earthquake, wind, or fire, or with the rich, powerful, or lovely; He shows up in the hospital corridors, amid those who suffer and those who serve. He shows up as a helpless newborn baby, born in a barn on the back edge of an empire. There may have been choirs of angels in the sky, but God lay in the straw crying for milk.

On this most atypical of Christmases, I learned to stop scanning the skies for those angel choirs, and to listen instead for the still, small voice in the dark.

On the Art of Waiting

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“I can’t stand it! I just can’t wait any longer!”

I hear these words from my daughters on a daily basis, it seems. Sometimes they’re spoken in frustration, sometimes in excitement. Always, the object of their waiting is something pleasurable, wished-for. It might be a birthday, time with a friend, a destination, or simply dinner. These days, of course, it’s Christmas. The problem is that they’re not there yet; they have to wait.

“It’ll come,” I tell my daughters repeatedly. “Just be patient.”

Right now, we are smack in the middle of Advent. The major Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter have built-in waiting times attached to them: Easter comes after 40 days of Lent, and the four Sundays before Christmas Day make up the season of Advent. We celebrate Advent by lighting candles (our church lights one candle for each Sunday, but our family has an Advent wreath with a candle for each of the 24 days prior to Christmas.) We open the doors on Advent calendars (our family prefers the ones with a small piece of fair-trade chocolate for every day of Advent.) We play Christmas carols and decorate the house.

In these modern times, we also spend Advent shopping, addressing Christmas cards, and running around to a dizzying variety of holiday parties and events.

I was surprised this year when I heard an interview with the British poet and priest Malcolm Guite, in which he said that Advent used to be a time of quiet, a time to stay in, a time to be thoughtful. The celebratory part of Christmas would begin on Christmas Eve and last for the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany; Advent was a time to be still and wait.

But we don’t like to wait, especially in our current culture of high-speed internet, movie streaming, and free two-day delivery. The way in which we spend modern Advents is further evidence of our impatience: We distract ourselves from the wait by filling the days with a flurry of activity. How can we be still when there’s so much to buy, do, and bake?

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent.