One of my favorite family pics of almost all of us a few years ago!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Why Must I Parent So Many Children to Learn Such Simple Truths?

This week, I've been thinking about my role as mother to so many different kinds of children, with various histories, needs and genetics.  Almost any mom with more than one child can testify to the fact that each child is unique, but having raised at least 50 children and taught hundreds more in my role as coach and teacher, even I am amazed at the range of my exposure to and insight into people.  

Perhaps the most telling result of this is that I am far more tolerant than I used to be. I think it is safe to say I was once quite judgmental, always imposing my ideas of what should be on others.  I still do that with my children in my role as parent, but that is probably because I am old fashioned and still believe that parents are entitled to push our personal values and agenda on our children as long as they are living under our roof and dependent on us.  

At this moment, we have 21 children, ranging in age from 1 to 31.  We have 3 children by birth.  The additional 18 children are either legally adopted and/or we became their legal guardians. And we have fostered a total of 52 children for some length of time. 

Depending on the time of year and the needs of our older young adult children, we typically have between 12 and 18 people at home at any given time.

We have babies and toddlers.  We have preschoolers, elementary-age kids, middle schoolers, high schoolers, college students, married children, grandchildren... and the list goes on.

We have fostered and adopted in every age group.  We have sweet, adorable children that joined or family at or near birth and have few issues related to their past.  And we have had some not so sweet, not so adorable teen-agers that we accepted into our family without question at a time when they had experienced far more tragedy than most will ever know AND they were at the age when it is challenging under the best of circumstances to enjoy being around them.

Our skin colors vary.  We have milky white children.  Olive skinned children.  Dark skinned brown children.  Caramel colored children.  And just about every shade in between.  All our children are from the United States.

We have children with special needs.  Gifted children.  High school Salutatorians.  High school dropouts. Kids who struggle with college.  And kids on scholarship. 

We have accepted pregnant teens, some of whom were pregnant through no fault of their own.  We have attempted to provide stability in an unstable situation and teach these young mothers how to care for their own children – even when it means we do most of the care-taking and parenting of both mother and child for many of the first years and sometimes permanently.

Some of our children suffer from mental illness related to their past or to their genetics --  acting out in every way you can imagine -- and some ways you can't imagine. But we also have children that are choosing to go into the missions, counseling and other helping professions because of their experiences in our family.

We have experienced the tragedy and grief of losing our teenage daughter, who recently died in a single car automobile accident.

We have had children born into addiction, but we feel blessed that we have had no children with chronic physical illnesses.

We have children that have been sexually, physically and emotionally abused.  We have children that have lost their mother (either literally or figuratively). We have father's in prison.  And children who have no idea who their biological father is.

We have biological families who are intricately involved in our family on a daily basis.  And we have biological families who are virtually disconnected.

We have children that are strongly grounded in our Christian faith. And children that seem indifferent, at best.  

We have children that are depressed. And children that are optimistic in the face of tragedies I can only imagine.  

We have children that need much discipline and structure.  And those who need little.  

We have children in private school, public school, no school and we home school.  

As I write this, even I am amazed at the vast array of experiences I have had as a mother. Our uniqueness has played a significant role in my life. These experiences have helped shape and grow me as a mom.  I certainly am not the same mom to my current babies, toddlers and preschoolers that I was 20 years ago when I was raising my first set. Thank goodness.  And by necessity I have developed many skill sets for raising teenagers that have proven useful as I endured and persevered through these not so fun years that never seem to end. 

I have learned that my role requires constant ingenuity and flexibility and a willingness to think outside the box as well as endless repetition (which I hate). It requires honesty and commitment.  And determination and perseverance.  And a little ADHD helps.  

This is the backdrop upon which I think and write and speak. And live. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

More Children. More Milk.

Written in February 28, 2007, when we added Child #14.

The call just came.  Actually, it came yesterday afternoon. Due to circumstances beyond her control, the seven-year-old sibling of three of our current long-term foster children needs a new home.  I knew that we would take her because our mission has always been to keep sibling groups together. But our routine life is so busy, I don’t even get a chance to tell my husband until early the next morning, just as he wakes up. 

“Honey, I forgot to tell you that we have a new child coming next week," I mention casually. "Actually, we know her.  We have been taking her siblings to visit her and she’s the one that stayed here at Christmas and a few other times this past year."

“Okay,” he murmurs, as if I just announced that I was going to run to the store to pick up another 4 gallons of milk for breakfast.

This is so strange.  When did adding another long-term child to the family become so routine that the entire conversation takes less time than brushing my teeth?

“She’ll be here March 6.”  I tried to get the current foster mom to hold on until March 21 so that we can have a little more time to adjust to our latest models -- our 2-week-old grandchild and our 20-year-old college student that just moved back home -- but it doesn’t work out.

“How does she feel about it?” he inquires.

“Oh, I think she’s excited. She’ll get to be with her siblings and niece and she loves them,” I say hopefully.

So, we are now officially parenting 14 children, plus a grandchild at least 2 weekends a month.

The new one is a real cutie – but active.  Things will be very different in a few days.  She will arrive in the midst of the unstoppable routine of our daily lives.  Yet another child joining us with no preparation, no real thought… just an acceptance that we are parents again.   

People keep asking me if I feel stressed.  I should be.  And usually I am.  But right now I’m just taking each minute as it comes.  There is a point at which it is no longer possible to remain in control.  To plan.  To predict.  I don’t know exactly which child caused me to realize this – but I finally did.

More times than not – which is better than when I was younger and I thought I had it all under control – I can actually remember that lesson and I just go with the flow. 

Postscript:  In 2011, we adopted this child and her siblings.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

That's Great Advice. But How Do I Do That?

My 20-year-old is devastated with her life right now.  Due to circumstances beyond her control, she’s had to temporarily drop out of school and she misses college life.  She’s also worried about relationships.  One relationship in particular. 

I give her some wonderful advice straight from the bible. "Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body what you will wear.  Is not life more than food and the body more than clothes?  Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not much more valuable than they?  Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?"   Matt 6:25-27 NIV 

Unfortunately, she asks me the obvious question.  “Okay. But how am I supposed to do that?”

“Aww crud.  Why did you have to ruin the moment and ask me such a difficult question when I had a pat little answer all ready for you?”  I ruminate.

Sometimes mother’s don’t have enough of whatever it takes to look smarter than we really are.  I can usually manage it, but this time I just stared down for a minute thinking to myself, “When I’m really upset, I can’t stop worrying. It seems easy when I am not worried. When I actually know that I’m not in control.  But it is so darn difficult when I think I should have everything under control.”

How much sense does that make? Such great logic from the mind of a former attorney (me). Okay, so I’m giving her good advice,  but I have absolutely no idea how to execute the plan when there really is something that bothers me.”  My mind continues with a free flow of ideas but I have no pat little answers this time.

What is a mother to do?  I simply look at her and say, “Actually honey, I have no idea.  It’s a whole lot easier for me to tell you what to do than to actually do it. But I know it’s good advice because God said it. Does that help?”

“Yea.  But how am I supposed to do that?” she repeats as if I have said nothing to appease her worries.

I pause again and my then 16-year-old, whose sitting in the next room yells, “Mom, I think she’s saying, ‘The concept is grasped.  It’s the execution that is a little elusive.’”

Thanks honey.

Friday, May 17, 2013

A Letter to My Pre-Teen and Teen Children: Written To Clarify My Own Thoughts, But Documented So That One Day You Might Understand Me Better

Note:  This letter was written 13 years ago, very early in my foster parent journey  and shortly after we added four young teens to our family (ages 11-14). I didn't think about it much then, but because each girl professed to be a Christian when she came to live with us, it didn't feel like we were forcing our religion down their throats.  They were searching for answers.  Today, my strong views might be viewed with more skepticism or criticism.
As I re-read it - having fostered and and adopted another 30 or so kids, I realize I have mellowed somewhat, but my views have been fairly consistent.  I still parent according to the needs of each child, and I expose them to the world when I think that they are ready, but because what I thought was based in Truth, not much has changed.  

October 7, 2000

Dear Children,

As I sit here, away from the challenges of everyday life, I find myself thinking of my role as the mother of our family.  Perhaps this letter is more for me than you – but I hope that you will keep it in a special place and read it from time to time.  I want it to be a reminder of my hopes and dreams for your life.  Also, I know that some of this won’t mean much to you now.  But I want to say it over and over again so that one day it will make sense. 

Let me begin with our roles, which may not be clear at this stage.  As I have told you before, I consider you my daughters and I treat you that way.  To me, that means that even though I don’t know whether you will be a part of our family for six (6) months or 60 years – my intent is to give you the same love, opportunities and guidance that I give the children that I know are mine forever.  Likewise, I expect the same of you that I do of them – that you do the best that you can.

That places me in the role of mom.  I know that I could never replace the relationship with your mom, nor would I want to do so.  That is a unique and special relationship what deserves to be protected, which is what I will try to do.

But, in our rather unique family, I am the mom and our relationship is that of mother and daughter.  And that is what I have been thinking about.  Why am I doing this job?  What are my goals as a mom for nine (9) children? 

In general, my goal is to provide a safe, comforting, loving, nurturing home where you can learn, make mistakes and eventually make your own decisions about your life and the directions it will take.  To create that environment, I must protect you from others who may hurt you.  Sometimes I even have to protect you from yourself.  

That may be difficult for you to understand because at some level, each of you feels capable of taking care of yourself.  That is normal and a good sign that you are like most other teen-agers in our society.  The good news is that if I am able to protect you from the opportunity to make poor decisions for a few more years, you will discover for yourself how much more mature and wise you will be once it is time for you to be independent and make your own decisions.  (In other words, you will realize that you don’t have all the answers!)

I told you a few weeks ago that some of the issues I am dealing with are new to me and that ya’ll need to understand that I am not perfect and not every decision that I make will be the “right” one.  God didn’t make me a perfect mother, but I do believe that He is the one that made me your mother for this period in your life. 

God tells us that He knew you before He formed you in your mother’s womb and he set you apart.  Jeremiah 1:5.  And For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD , plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11 
God knows everything that has or will ever happen to you and He has you exactly where he wants you right now. Your job is to stay within God’s will and His protection.  When you disobey or ignore God, things do not go well for you – because you are living the life you want, not the one that God had planned for you.

I have no idea why God planned for us to connect at this point in our lives – but I believe that He has a purpose.  Our job is to follow His lead.  He doesn’t tell me exactly what to do everyday, but He does give me guidance – when I’m willing to listen.

For example, I know that I [along with my husband] am responsible for “training and teaching” you in the way you should go so that “when you are old you will not depart from it.”

I also know that God has a plan for your protection, which depends, in part, on your obedience to the rules and boundaries that dad and I set for you.  Basically, that means that we love you and that we use the wisdom God has given us to parent you.  If you follow the rules and stay within the boundaries, you will be protected from what can harm you.  If you choose to disobey, then there is no protection and you are likely to get hurt.

Now, we understand that you will test those boundaries and push their limits and that is part of growing up.  But, if you choose to ignore the limits, you are choosing to take risks that are not okay with God.

So, what does all this stuff mean to us?  I look at it this way:
You are teen-agers and you have already experienced more in life than some will face over a lifetime.  You have been exposed to much that is horrible and terrible in this world and you have not seen enough good.  My choices for you are designed for the purpose of showing you what else is out there.

So, when I say “no” to Halloween parties because we are in the midst of spiritual battles, I’m not trying to hide it from you.  I’m trying to teach you what it took be 35 years to learn … sometimes and sometimes all the time, it is dangerous.  Moreover, if you fill your mind with the bad stuff it will continually come back to haunt you.  Satan loves the bad stuff and he wants to use it against you whenever he can.

I know that you have seen every movie possible.  I understand that prior to living with us you had no restrictions whatsoever on what you watched or participated in. But this is a new opportunity and new expectations.

That means that when I allow you to watch the hacksaw murderer chase the young girl through the woods and kill her – I allow that visual image into your head.  Then, when you are alone one night, Satan can use that image to terrify you when there is no rational reason for you to be fearful.  That may sound crazy to you, but you must trust that I speak from experience.

There is a verse I have heard all my life and it never mean much to me until this summer.  It says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable -- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy -- think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me or seen in me – put into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. Philippeans 4:8.

Ironically, when I opened a friend’s bible to copy that verse, the following words were handwritten in the front:  “Change you thoughts and you will change the world.”

What I realized this summer, just weeks before your joined our family, is that it does matter who your friends are, what you watch on television, what books you read, what you see in movies, and how you think, because these experiences become a part of you.  If you fill yourself with the bad stuff – the bad stuff is what you get.  If you fill your mind and heart with good stuff – you get more of the good stuff.

The idea made me think of our Build-A-Bear experience the first night some of you joined our family.  If you built a bear and filled it with soft cotton or fluffy feathers you would have snuggly, comforting bear that you could sleep with, cuddle and lay your head upon.  But if you fill your bear with rocks and thorns and sticks, it may still look like a cute, cuddly bear – but you wouldn’t get much joy or pleasure from it, nor would it be capable of giving it – even if you wanted it too.

That means that I may say “no” to a book that you want to read, a television show, a place you want to go or something else, even when you can’t see what is wrong with what you want.  And the fact is, I may be wrong.  But for now, while I’m trying to protect you, I can take the risk of being wrong because I know that a missed opportunity will not hurt you, but saying “yes” could hurt you.  I want to fill you with soft cotton and cuddly feathers, not rocks, sticks, and thorns.

The same applies to dating and relationships.  Some of you have already experienced more in your sexual relationships than God intended, but that was your past and God forgives those who ask Him. Some of you have been abused and that has distorted the way you view the sexual relationship God had planned for you.  But these are simply facts, nothing more or less, unless you make them that way. Once forgiven by God, sin no longer exists and will not be held against you. 

But what you do now that you know that God intended for you to remain pure for your husband does matter to God and to your future husband.  Of course, you could fall into sin again and still be forgiven, but there are usually natural consequences related to your sin that God does not necessarily prevent; for example, pregnancy, disease, loneliness, and feelings of unworthiness.  These natural consequences will affect the course of your life.

All of this is really the adult way of saying that I don’t want to keep you from relationships with boys so that I can control your life.  I do so because I know that you, like most teens, are not ready for the responsibility and emotional commitment to a boy that is not going to be your husband.  I know that you must find a way to get your own needs met without a serious boy/girl relationship (I don’t just mean the act of sex.)  I believe that friendships are the only form of relationship that you need right now.  Anything else is really a poor substitute for what you really need – which is a relationship with God.

Okay, so I admit that it all sound a little preachy – but I’m trying to explain to you why I do what I do in the hopes that you can see how it relates to my hopes and dreams for your future and my responsibility to teach and train you.

Which brings me to another thought, you asked me if someone could be in the middle of really bad stuff without much (Christian) guidance or direction and still turn out okay.  The answer is “Absolutely.”  But success is the exception, not the rule.  This is because when we act alone we tend to follow our own human desires rather than God’s plan … not to mention that we are battling Satan without asking for God’s help.  That means that it is much more difficult and highly unusual, but certainly not impossible.  Moreover, your success is attributable directly to God.

The reality is that going through the experience may be a blessing that ultimately leads to a stronger, Godlier person.  Remember, God always takes the bad and can turn it to good.  A verse keeps going through my head:

Consider it pure joy my friends whenever you face trials of any kind, for the testing of your faith develops perseverance and perseverance must finish its work so that you will be complete and full, not lacking anything.  James 1:2-4

So to answer the question, I believe that if you were still with your parents and you relied on God’s help you could still become a strong Godly woman. 

However, something just occurred to me: God didn’t keep you with your parents.  He placed you with our family – so he must have had a different plan for your life.  You will still face trials of many kinds in our family – but they will be different that the trials you would have faced had you continued to live with your parents or another foster family. 

I don’t know what that really means for you or to you, but just realizing that God could have left you where you were, but he chose to put you with us might mean that you need to be seeking out God’s plan for your life in the situation that you are in right now – as a member of the Lee family. 

Perhaps your stay with us will be short, or maybe it will be forever. However, we can’t dwell on the length of our time together – only on what we do with the time that we are given.

I can’t take away what you have already experienced in your relationships, sexuality, failures, and abuse.  However, I can provide an environment where you can grow and mature and learns from those experiences.  I can do that by setting boundaries, listening to your wants and needs, teaching and guiding you, watching you, checking up on you (even when you don’t want me too) and by following God’s lead.

Ultimately, when you are ready, I want you to choose a path for your life and decide your own beliefs and values.  But, until you are ready, I’m asking that you trust me and dad to guide you – knowing that we may make mistakes and poor choices, but that we are trying to follow God’s lead and we are acting out of love and commitment to you – knowing that only certain paths will lead to happiness and contentment and all of them involve God.

So, this is my letter.  As I said in the beginning, I wrote it to you – for me – in part to figure out why I feel so passionate about my responsibility to you kids. 

Although I may be ornery and cranky at times (okay, a lot of the time), I want you to know that I consider each of you a Gift from God that I must treasure and protect. 

I Love You,


P.S.  Although dad is not likely to write you a letter like this, we talk about our children every day.  We discuss what’s best for each of you; what we do wrong; how we can best help and more.  This letter is about my role as mother; however, I can’t  (and don’t) do any of my jobs without my husband.  He is a key element in this family.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Story of My Life...

The Story of My Life
(Written 6 years ago.  Not much has changed.  Except my age and the number of children.)

The sight of my 44-year-old body alongside my husband’s 55-year-old frame lying on the floor with a flashlight focused under two bookshelves and a computer table is a picture I don't recommend putting into your head.  But we're on a mission.  Together.  Come to think of it – we haven't been alone together in quite some time. 

Anyway.  We're looking for a lost book.  I didn't lose it.  It must have lost itself. I'm absolutely positively sure that I had it in my possession just a few days ago.  It was sitting on my desk on top of 6 piles of "Needs You/Requires More" stuff.  Isn't that the story of my life? The papers are on my desk because they aren't in the trash, which is where all the unnecessary stuff goes. I'm sure the book is not in the trash, but I look anyway.

I'm a determined person.  I don't like to be beat.  Especially by a lost book that  I know I saw on my desk.  My mind won't stop racing. I retrace every step since last Saturday. That's a heck of a lot of steps. I vaguely remember wanting to read the book before teaching my class, but I never actually read it. I suggest that the kids look in the car.

My mind won't let me let this one go. I've been looking for 4 hours – not straight mind you – but for 4 hours every spare thought is on the location of the book. It’s not just about the book anymore.  It’s the principal of the thing.

I even offered to pay $2 to the lucky finder.  Before I could get the word "pay" out of my mouth, I have 4 volunteers – including my husband.  Money is scarce around here.  But my sanity is even more scarce.  It's worth the entire two bucks.

You can tell a lot about perseverance and determination by this task.  Three of the four lookers spend the next 15 minutes looking diligently.  In the car, under tables, over the river, through the woods.  But then they fizzle out. 

Only one remains in the race.  Poor kid.  I mean that quite literally – she really wants the two bucks.  And she continues to look for the next hour.  I wanted to give her the money just for her determination.  But I was scared that she would stop looking and I just wanted to find my book.

One day later: My astute readers surely recall my mentioning that the kids looked in the car . Actually, three kids looked in the car.  But when I put my belongings in the car the next morning, guess what I found between my seat and the middle compartment?  

Okay.  I admit that my vague recollection was accurate.  I probably picked up the book and took it to the car hoping to read it in between driving, teaching and shopping.  But that's not the point.  How could three kids spend a combined total of an hour and forty-five minutes looking for a book that was the first thing I saw when I got into the car?  I think that's the story of my life?

I could look on the bright side.  I got some quality time with my husband.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Lost and Found: A Mother's Day Letter from Heather, 2009

Life has a funny sense of humor.  Today, while searching for something I had written earlier about mothering foster children, I ran across this letter.  It was written by Heather, our first adopted daughter, who died in a car accident a little over two years ago.  Her words reminded me of the struggles we had in our relationship, but also the importance and value of sticking around through all the challenging times when what I really wanted to do was run away and hide from the difficulties.  I would gladly trade all those hard times for a little more time with her.   

May 6, 2009

She’s the mom of way too many, the greatest debate coach in the region, and the best person I know. I could say no words that would truly explain what I think of you.

 I don’t think I noticed how much you meant to me until I found myself begging God that you wouldn’t give up on me. I know that our relationship still isn’t perfected but I trust that God has it in His hands.

Mother’s Day is such a hard day for me, because I feel like I’ve never been the daughter to you that you’ve always wanted. I guess…I guess I get a taste of how you feel only just one day a yr. Because I  know I always make you feel like you’re not the mom I want….

Can I take it all back? Can I please just erase anything I’ve ever said to hurt you or tear you down?

My life…has been a mess but now that I’m finally turning it around I hate that I’ve caused you any trouble. All the late night conversations and dealing with my teenage yrs…

Not only do I not know how you do it,but I don’t understand why you still do! 

But that mom, that’s what I’m sooo greatful for. I wish that I could express that to you every day....

I wish for a lot of things though… I wish that you had more time alone with yourself…so you can think and get organized. 

I wish that I wasn’t so self absorbed and was actually more of a help then a pain…

But those are just the many things you realize as you grow up.  I’m sixteen yrs old. Young and beginning on my journey to face the world alone….it’s kinda freak.

What am I gunna do without you? 

You’ve emotionally guided my every step for so long and created the foundation I lacked - it’s overwhelming to think I’m gunna have to do it all by myself one day. 

Those are the days I’ll be thankful for you the most. God didn’t give me a mom who did everything for me on purpose. He gave me you. Which is sooo much better.

 As much time as I spend questioning God, I think he laughs under his breath…He’s just got it all worked out. 

He gave you to me to teach you patience, I’m sure. I think I’ve presented you a completely different aspect of life. 

I still remember the first night I met you in Missouri (she was 6-years old an in an adoptive home that didn't want to keep her). You didn’t phase me a bit. I thought you’d be gone in no time. I played that game way too many times, I knew how to win.

But life has proven me wrong. I can’t win everything and I can’t do it all by myself.

This is just a letter I’m writing you that will get read a couple times and put under a stack of books or something…but I just want you to know…you mean the world to me mom. I’m way lucky to have you, even if I wouldn’t have picked you out for myself. I pray that our relationship will heal over the years and that one day I’ll be able to understand how much you love me. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.

There’s lyrics are all over the page of songs that say things that make me think of you. But here’s one of my favorite songs that I have dedicated to you. Every word of this song is to you.

How Have We Come This Far by Wavorly
In the beginning when all this was something new
I was younger
They say when you’re older you have it figured out
Did I take it for granted?
How do you see right through my faults?

Turning around was never so hard
Until I found us far apart
Turning it over I’m left to wonder
How have we come this far?

Hands that are reaching
To a world that’s turned away from you
Truth that is sobering
Your love will never cease finding the lost ones
Letting go of all my pain

Falling down is oh, so hard
I am torn, I am bruised
Finding grace in every scar
I am whole, I am new

I love you,