We had days of chaos, so long ago, only months ago, only yesterday.
We were overstimulated, overextended, and overwhelmed as kids came and went and we fought for some to stay.
These were the most intense years of our lives, so soon after we were married, an intensity we weren’t always sure we would survive. There was so much screaming, so many things thrown at us, so many goodbyes to children that we loved – and a few who didn’t look back. There was scrambling for clothes, praying for fishes and loaves, and driving the old van until it fell apart. There were last minute birthday gifts, holding our breath for Christmas gifts, and last minute surprise children on vacations. There was late night delousing, the great battle of the bedbugs, and those weeks when we had nine children. Nine.
We had a routine when new kids came: Nathan carefully took their few belongings while I distracted them at the door, and he got all their things straight to the dryer, and then the washing machine, and then the dryer again. I got them into the bath, picked their hair for knits, and into borrowed night clothes. They always, always, always came in the night, and we always, always, always ordered them pizza. That was the only familiar connection in the beginning.
Sometimes we got enough notice to make up the couch into a bed, or put new sheets on an empty bed in the girls’ room or the boys’ room.
More often than not, we had to play musical beds: putting up cribs in three minutes, or pulling a toddler bed from the garage, or squeezing another twin into this room or that.
Always by morning, we made sure their belongings were clean and ready to be claimed, knowing those few things were all they had left of the life they had known.
We always kept the next day easy as possible, usually sending the other kids on to schools or daycare while we spent the day getting the new ones into doctors and enrolled in school. It takes a whole day to get a new child into the doctor, dentist, eye doctor, and to fill out all that enrollment paperwork. Once we filled out the entire school enrollment packet fourteen times in three weeks. My hand cramped, and it was exhausting, and the papers were tedious. The doctor paperwork is easier, since we never had any knowledge about their history. Sometimes we didn’t even have placement papers yet, though that’s never supposed to happen.
I went to court 285 times. We still have one to go, for the adoption of the baby. If you don’t know, going to court for a foster child means showing up at the beginning of a court session (a morning or an afternoon), because you don’t know where on the docket your child is listed or what time they will be called. It means waiting for hours, and it means dramatic hallway encounters with birth parents, and it means paying that high price for only seconds in the court room. One hearing after another, passed (rescheduled) over again and over again, thirty days at a time, or ninety days at a time, or in the case of Mary – whose parents actually did nothing at all ever – just two court dates in the entire case.
The first court date was always adjudication, which is when the charges are read and you find out why the child is in foster care. We could have a child in custody for weeks before we got this information, depending on the caseworker. The parents agree or not to the charges, and then another hearing is set a month or three months later, depending on the case. This is the dead zone, when the amount of time the child is in foster care isn’t even counted. It isn’t until the second court hearing, when the parents are given a service plan of things they are required to do or improve upon to address the original charges, it’s not until then that clock starts ticking. Every time the parents do anything at all, even just make an appointment, not even counting showing up at that appointment, the clock starts over. That’s how kids are in foster care for years in a state where there is a six month limit for termination. The parents get every chance there is, with time starting over every time they do anything at all.
In the meantime, they lived with us. They were strangers to us, and we were strangers to them. There’s no way around it. No matter how noble or kind we imagine ourselves to be (and fostering will prove you are not), it doesn’t make you family right away. No matter how hard you work to find them clothes that fit, or food they like, or super hero bed sheets that match their favorite show, you never ever replace the family they were just ripped from so abruptly. No matter how bad things were before, it doesn’t make their biological family any less their family. No matter how much you grow to love them over time, you cannot undo what they have already endured.
That’s a hard thing, living with strangers you are supposed to care for but that don’t want you to care for them, and sharing your space that people who don’t even like you have already invaded.
It’s awkward. It’s uncomfortable. It’s exhausting.
And because you live there, life is never the same, and you never get a break, and most of your property will get damaged in some way.
Some kids stayed a few hours, most stayed at least overnight; some stayed a weekend, most stayed at least a few months.
Six stayed for two years, and then for good, at least with us.
That’s how we got out of fostering.
We got into fostering because we felt prompted to do so when we were first married, and sacrificed all we knew and all we had and our very lives to make it happen.
And while many clicked their tongues at us in disapproval, we really did say no. We said no a lot. We said no more than we said yes. We said no regularly and often, and fought for the boundaries of our family even while it was in such flux. The rare times we did say yes, rare even though it was so many, those rare times were times we each received a testimony that we should say yes, prayed about it, and voted with the children before telling the caseworker who had called. We went through that process every time, sometimes in tears.
Some say we created our family from nothing, but that’s not entirely true. The pieces were out there, but we had to find them. We had to gather them. We had to organize them.
I refer to our own selves and skills as much as the children themselves.
Before Nathan and I were married, he was a temple worker in New York City like I was in Oklahoma City. One day the matron told him a story about the ancients being hunters and gatherers. She told him it was the man who was on the hunt, focused on the end point and ready to get there, and that it was the woman who had to gather the food along the way so they could eat once they arrived. He walked a direct path, marching onward towards camp, while she wandered and meandered and walked around in circles stopping to gather plans and vegetables and herbs as she could find them along the way. It might slow him down, but it also provided a better tasting dinner.
This was true for us as we found the children that were to be ours. We did not get into fostering to adopt, and never imagined that we would be adopting. We knew, though, that we were a family, and that we would have to work together to get back home as a family. Even once we decided to foster, Nathan dove in with his own testimony of this as a calling or an assignment almost, one we must endure for a season, and one that was teaching us more than anything else ever had – and mostly about repentance and our own shadows we never before knew were there. But for me, the experience was more of a whisper, gathering this child over here, and that child over there, and here’s one of ours, and that one is ours, too… as if we couldn’t get back to camp until all our little chickens were safe, until the flowers had been gathered, until our basket was full.
The basket is full now.
In my morning scripture study, I do read the Book of Mormon everyday, but I also read something from the Old and New Testaments, as well as the D&C. I need the time to study, the time to hear the voice of the Lord, and the time to be guided and nourished and strengthened. My patriarchal blessing says that as I study and ponder and memorize the scriptures, the very fibers of my soul will be strengthened. Sometimes I think that’s the only thing keeping me alive almost, the very words of God. It smells ancient and rings true to me, and so I feast on the words that teach me who I am and what I am to do and how to discern right and wrong and light and darkness.
For my Old Testament studies, I have recently started over in Genesis again. It feels like an old friend after my Jewish studies, but it is good to swim in it again for personal study and not just school or articles. The Old Testament seems archaic and far away if you don’t jump in or try without any Spirit juice, but with eyes of understanding it is packed full of temple-ness and it feeds me like nothing else.
I did get to go to the temple for a session the night before Mary’s sealing, and learned something there that I found again in my studies this week. The very symbols of the creation narrative overlay the experience of forming our family so spectacularly that there is much for me to learn. It is so obvious to me now, but I did not see it while we were enduring so much in the moment.
The last three years, I understand now, were the first “day” of the creation of our family. We had a violent and fiery beginning, like lava flowing over the earth not yet formed. We were literally formed from the chaos, with me as a convert and Nathan so far away, and each of our children from different parents all over the state. None of us would have dreamed we would choose this way of forming a family, but these were the circumstances in which we found ourselves and found great joy in discovering each other – even if the actual formation period (and its adjustment) was so very painful (for each of us). Now we are bound together, sealed for time and all eternity, from the void to being established as a family.
Last year, then, was the second “day” of the creation of our family. The discernment between land and water brings definition to who we are as a family. The land is stability, which Nathan and I need after years of fostering, and which the kids need after bouncing around in foster care. The water is nourishment, which Nathan and I need after pouring ourselves out for so many children, and which the children need after all they have endured. This is where consecration comes in again, though, at a new level for us to practice: it is about both nourishing the others in our family, and the allowing ourselves to be nourished; it is about both creating stability for others in the family, and about setting the boundaries that maintain our own stability. This is our land, we must decide as a family, and this is what we need to nourish us.
There’s a lot of work that goes into learning to do those kinds of land and water works. It might mean saying, “this is how we do visits because its what is best for the family as a whole,” or it might mean saying,”we have to homeschool for a season because of this and that and this,” or it might mean saying we can’t have visitors on this day, but on that day we would love to meet you at the park. It might mean that we all need naps today, but tonight everyone gets pizza. It might mean you have to go play outside while I make dinner tonight, but tomorrow we are all going to cook together. It might mean that no, I am not going to yell back at you just because you have been screaming at me for hours, or it might mean that I’m going to kick everyone else out because it’s your turn to rock with me in the big chair no matter how old you are.
We’ve come a long way on day two work. It’s not always smooth yet, but we are getting better at it. We are getting better at it by using our words, listening to our bodies’ basic needs, and responding to spirit promptings for better parenting than we could do on our own. We aren’t finished yet, but our family is more stable and we are each more nourished than even months ago. Things are better, calmer, sweeter somehow, and I can’t help but believe that’s in part because we are sealed together – except for the one more to go, but that one will be soon.
I feel the difference, before and after the temple, and I know it is true, no matter what anyone says.
Getting better at day two brings day three on its way. We aren’t there yet, but we can see it coming. That counts for something. Day three is about becoming ourselves, and making more of who we want to be. It means being better at day two work, so that we can better be the spouses and parents the Lord says we can be, rather than only failing or not trying. We keep trying, and He keeps making it better. Day three is about presenting the evidence of who we are, despite circumstances, and regardless of our internal states. It doesn’t matter how crazy things get or how hard life is, because God is still God, and we are still who He says we are, and all of that is still true. But if we know it is true, it changes the choices we make and it empowers who we become. Day three is about discovering the unique traits and special gifts specific to each of us that contribute to our family – and the world around us – so that we can give stability and nourishment to others as well. We are warriors, and heroes, and teachers, and gardeners, and poets; each of these archetypes has strengths that contribute to our family and will help change the world, and each has challenges that must be overcome in order to become holy.
That’s what we are learning now, and it’s harder than ever… but better than ever, too.
It’s been seven years since I met the missionaries – a very busy seven years – and I remember how heavy the gospel seemed then, even the pieces I knew were true. I know people said the laws were oppressive, and the weight of responsibility too great. What I have learned, though, is that it’s only too much for us when we don’t want to become more ourselves. That, in turn, creates an internal struggle against ourselves that makes it all feel crazy. Our choice becomes to either act in faith the way Alma said to experiment to see what’s true and if it really works, or to recreate ourselves (even externally) to try and match the limited version of ourself that we must create from scratch since it isn’t really us and isn’t at all who He promised we can be.
It seems easier, I remember from before, to just quit and to run away and to not take on the weight of doing real spiritual work of becoming my own potential.
It’s easier to play with crayons, to create an external facade, to express myself to match an illusion of culture rather than to submit to the boundaries of being set apart as peculiar (unique) in order to be made holy.
If we do not let Him set us apart (for Him), then we set our own selves apart (from Him).
We might think it frees us, that it’s easier, because we step down a world where there is a lesser law instead of doing the work of following a higher law. We might think it lifts responsibility from us, or gives us air from the confinement of covenants. But all we choose has a consequence, even in a lesser world, and the greater space felt around you isn’t freedom so much as it is the absence of God.
When we instead do the work of a higher law, every choice still has a consequence, but we are encircled about and protected and covered in grace and mercy and cushioned in protection and provision.
It’s like the baby, or one of the children, when they are overly tired. They scream and cry and fuss and fight sleep, trying so hard to stay awake. They think staying away is freedom, and the kick against me or push against me, and throw their covers off. But really it just makes them more uncomfortable, and they lose that time of peace. When they finally submit to resting, they curl into me, and we cuddle, and we snuggle with the blanket, and the experience brings them great comfort. In both scenarios, or with both choices, I am still the same parent, and they are still the same child. Fighting against me doesn’t change who I am or who they are, only their experience of that moment.
There is no need for us to be perfect, as in without-mistakes.
There is only a need for us to repent, and to keep trying.
It is the atonement that makes us perfect, as in whole, because it is the atonement that brings us back to God, and we are not whole without Him.
There is no need for us to be culturally religious, whatever that means, like all those around us. They might have it wrong. Really wrong. What’s important is to follow the prophet, to hear the word of the Lord, and to follow the Spirit promptings that say “try again” and “do this” and “Heavenly Father loves you so much.”
Know what the scriptures say more than anything else, whether it’s the Bible or the Book of Mormon or more modern revelation? The scriptures say not to be afraid. The scriptures say to lift up your head and be of good cheer. The scriptures say the Lord will keep His promises, even to keep you safe, even to remind you how very much you are loved.
The scriptures say the whole point is to invite you home again, by the merits of the Savior, so that we can be a family.
Families are messy. It’s hard work, no matter how yours got organized on earth. Maybe yours is cleaner than ours, or more orderly than ours, or better at not yelling than ours. But we are a family that is trying, even when trying means ripping ourselves open raw until we can be recreated anew, with clean hearts and right spirits. We are a family of prodigals, and we know that the Father has been waiting for us already, watching even from a long way off, waiting for us to come home.