Monthly Archives: November 2013

I’m Adopted, Too: A story of gratitude for the man who chose to be my Dad

In my life, family is not defined by blood.  It is defined by love and choice.

  karin pop and josh at karin's 30th bday                      pop grammy and josh at tee ball

When I picked Josh up from school last week, his teacher came up to me and said, “I didn’t know Josh was adopted!”  I was a little thrown off guard because she said it right in front of Josh, and, although it is clearly not something we hide from him, it seemed odd for her to bring it up out of nowhere with him standing at my heel.  I assumed that one of the other teachers told her, but before I could respond, she said with a smile, “Josh told me today!”

“Really?” I thought.  I almost never hear him use the word adopted.  Even when we bring it up, he never really seems to dwell on that word.  I was surprised and also curious.  His sweet teacher gave me a big smile and choked back tears while she told me the story.  During a Thanksgiving activity where all the kids were instructed to say one thing they are thankful for, Josh said, “I am thankful for my adopted family.”  My eyes met hers and we were both fighting back tears.  I touched her arm and thanked her for sharing that with me.  I tried my best to pick up the puddle of emotions that fell on the floor and walk to the car with my son.  As we were leaving, Josh stopped to show me the Thanksgiving wreath his class made.  Next to his name, it said “I am thankful for my family who adopted me.”  He gave me a big hug and told me he loved me.  “Thank you God for these moments.” I thought.

A little while after that, we were snuggling on the couch and I decided to ask him about his decision to tell his class he was adopted.  He couldn’t really give me an answer, which is not surprising since he is 5 years old and that is a fairly abstract concept I was asking him about. (Sidenote: Why do we parents do this?  I have training in play therapy and I teach counseling students how to do play therapy by tracking and reflecting and avoiding direct questions, and I still feel the need to ask my son abstract, complex questions with no clear answer to amuse my adult mind and satiate my curiosity.)  Although he couldn’t answer my initial question, he told me that one of his teachers told him she was adopted too!  He seemed really excited to know that, and I felt really grateful.  I was so glad that someone was there to connect with him as he shared this personal information with his class.

Then Josh looked at me and asked, “Mommy, are you adopted?”  My immediate response was “No”, but he challenged me by saying, “Yes, you are!”  I couldn’t tell at first if he just said this because he wanted us to have that common ground, but then it hit me and I knew exactly what he was talking about.  My step-dad, Richard.  I thought back to the way I talked about my dad and step-dad, using language with Josh like, “I have two dads who love me.” and explaining that even though my step-dad didn’t know me when I was little, I was meant to be his daughter.  I thought about the meaning of adoption and the significance of loving a child that is not your biological child, and also loving a child that you didn’t know since birth.  I have the best step-dad.  I really do.  He loves me and supports and honors me.  He accepted me as his own when he married my mom, and he never made me feel like I didn’t belong.

hull wedding

Beyond loving and accepting me, my step-dad also honored my father and did everything he could to show respect and even gratitude toward him.  He never tried to replace him, but he also wasn’t threatened by him.  He recognized that there was room for both of them in my heart.  And because of this, I made room.  A lot of room.  He filled voids I never knew I had and met needs I hadn’t identified before they were filled.

I remember the first time my step-dad told me he loved me.  My parents hadn’t been married long, and my mom got in a minor car accident with us in the car.  I had just turned 15, so naturally I wanted to go to a friend’s house later that night despite the circumstances.  In fact, I am sure I was more concerned about the prospect of having to miss my sleepover than I was about the car or anyone’s physical well-being.  I was dropped off at my friend Emma’s house before my step-dad got home from work, so I didn’t see him that day.  That evening, while my friend and I were watching a movie and talking about boys (undoubtedly), I called to check in with my mom before going bed, and she told me Richard wanted to say hi.  He got on the phone and asked me how I was feeling after the accident.  I could sense the concern and care in his voice as he spoke, and before hanging up the phone, he told me he loved me and he was glad I was okay.  I was a little caught off guard, but it also felt natural to return the words to him.  I hung up the phone, and instead of talking about boys, my friend and I talked about my step-dad and how glad I was that my mom married him.  I will never forget that night.

Our relationship continued to deepen and strengthen after that.  My sister and I renamed Richard “Pop” because it just didn’t seem personal enough to call him by his first name.  We made up a game where we would talk about all the things we did together when we were little and all the family vacations we took.  He would say, “I remember when Karin was just a little blonde girl with pig tails running around.”  For senior prom, we all went to my friend’s house to take pictures, and one of the other parents told my Pop how I looked just like him.  Without missing a beat, he said, “I know.”  When I was 19, I crashed my car (at 11:30 pm on New Year’s Eve), and my Pop was the only person I thought to call.  The person I trusted most to help me.  (And the one who I hoped would be the most forgiving, which proved to be true.)  When I was away at college, I called him regularly to ask for advice and feel “taken care of”.  When my heart got broken, he reminded me that no guy is worthy of me and that, to him, I am the best.

pop and karin dancing at wedding  karin wedding family pic

On my wedding day, we danced a choreographed dance to Mama Mia’s “I have a dream”.  It was his idea, and he said it was the perfect song for us.  We laughed because, in the movie, the daughter has three dads that love her.  And they all agree to “share her” in the end because none of them can imagine not being her father and none of them care enough about the biological connection to let that push them away.  The love of her fathers gives her strength to set sail on her own, with their love and support as the current behind her.  I don’t remember much about my wedding day.  But that dance is embedded in my memory.

When I told my Pop that I was adopting my son, he didn’t miss a beat.  He didn’t question my motives (or sanity), and he didn’t express concern or hesitation.  He embraced me.  And then he embraced my son.  Looking back, it doesn’t surprise me that my step-dad so readily embraced the concept of adoption.  He lived it.

pop and josh christmas 2012                          pop grammy and josh at dinner

All of these thoughts and memories and feelings flooded my mind as my son looked at me and told me I was adopted, too.  I smiled and responded, “You’re right! I am adopted! We both are!”  Then we hugged and laughed, and I could feel the connection between us deepen.  I also felt an immense gratitude and love for my step-dad; my Pop.  He loved me when he didn’t have to.  He chose to be a father to me.  He received me as his own even though I wasn’t his biological child.  And he modeled the significance of adoption years before it would be present in my own family.

During this Thanksgiving season, I just want to take a moment to say thank you, Pop.  Thank you for choosing to be my dad.  Thank you for standing by me and showing me what it means to commit to loving someone.  Thank you for teaching me that blood is overrated.  And that love stronger still.

The Madness and Sanity of Parenting

josh in tree

While sitting in a research meeting on campus yesterday, my phone rang.

Oh no. My son’s school. 

“Josh is fine, but there was an incident, and we want to meet with you.  Today.”  My heart is beating out of my chest.  I am told that I don’t have to come now, but that it needs to be before pick-up.  “Wait…But hurry.”

Uggh.. This part is so hard.  The waiting.  The uncertainty.  The fear.  That out-of-control feeling when you realize your kid, however young he may be, is a real person capable of having his own thoughts and making his own decisions.  She wouldn’t give me any details over the phone, but after hearing the director’s tone and choice of words, I was pretty sure my son was the offender.  This filled me with a range of emotions from fear to guilt to concern to helplessness.  “What if it’s really bad?”  “How will I respond?”  I realized that allowing my imagination to run wild was not productive for my stress level or sanity, so I tried to quiet those voices and pray.  I prayed that I would handle the situation graciously and thoughtfully.  I prayed that I would be receptive and not quick to judgment or anger.  (Both toward my son and toward others involved).  But mostly, I prayed for my son.  I prayed that he would know the love and forgiveness of God and trust in the love and forgiveness of his parents.

I didn’t know how I would feel when I found out the specifics of the incident in question, but I knew this.  I wasn’t going to reject my son, no matter what the school told me or what he had done.  I know my boy.  He is sensitive and empathic and intuitive, and he knows the feeling of rejection so acutely already.  My mind was imagining the worst possible scenarios, and as I played them out, I pictured myself moving toward my son in love and grace, reminding him that even when I am mad and disappointed and hurt (which I will be at times because that is a part of relationships and the impact our actions have on others), his offenses will never be greater than my love and commitment to him as my son.

In typical Karin fashion, I have now built up this story to an anti-climactic point where I tell you that, although the offense was definitely disobedient and even dangerous, it was not among the worst of the fears that bounced around my head on my drive over to the school.  That is a technique I use as a counselor, too.  Think of the worst case scenario.  Process how you would handle it and what it would feel like.  Now imagine an equally plausible scenario that is not so horrible.  How does that feel?  Okay, if I am being honest, my approach in the car may not have been as therapeutic as I just described.  But the relief I felt was palpable nonetheless.  And for the record, I can say that his sweet and intuitive teacher handled it superbly, and I am grateful for that.

After a positive and encouraging interaction with the director and teacher, I was eager to walk down to my son’s classroom and receive him with grace and love.  When I came in, he gave me a sheepish smile and wavered before walking over to me.  He was trying to read my face and body language to see if I knew, and he was watching me to see how I would respond.  I smiled and said, “Let’s go home.”  He walked slowly next to me, looking at me every so often, then looking back down.  I didn’t make much small talk, but I didn’t give him the cold shoulder either.  I just walked with him.  I put him in the car, then came around and sat next to him in the back seat.  He was surprised and kind of laughed, not knowing what I was up to.

I looked my son in the eye, told him I loved him, smiled slightly but intently, then asked him to tell me what happened today.  As we sat there together, I watched my son wrestle through the events of the day painfully in his mind, telling me bits and pieces, then withdrawing.  This cycle went on a few times, then finally, after most of the story had been retold from his perspective along with remorse and guilt, he said the thing I had been fearing and praying through since I first got the call.  He said he was afraid I wouldn’t forgive him.  He spoke the words with such raw emotion and genuineness, and he wouldn’t look at me after he said them.  I turned my son’s face to mine, kissed his nose, and told him that I forgive him and I love him, and I always will.  Always.  Then we had a serious conversation about obedience, respect, and thinking about consequences before acting.

There is a line from the movie Spanglish that reminds me of my feelings yesterday.  The main character says, “Worrying about your children is sanity.  And being that sane is enough to drive you nuts.”  In the midst of all the stress and anxiety I felt yesterday afternoon, I also experienced a deep sense of gratitude.  I have wanted to be a parent my whole life.  Now I am a parent, and sometimes my child drives me nuts.  I love this little person so much and so deeply that it makes me feel crazy sometimes.  But in those moments when I get wrapped up in my own craziness of worrying about my child, I also remind myself that I cannot control him or protect him from the world’s problems or make all of his decisions for him.  He is his own little person with a will and a mind and a heart and a body and a soul.  I have been given the privilege of being his mother.  And with that privilege comes a great deal of responsibility and diligence.  But every day, whether we put our kids on school buses or home school them, whether they live in our house or have a house and a family of their own, we have to release our children into the world and hope and pray they will be okay. (Mom, I get it now.)

Being a parent is the most maddening and sane thing I have ever done.  And even though yesterday was a tough day, it was important.  Josh needs those moments.  He needs to make bad choices and mess up sometimes.  And I need those moments, too.  I need to be reminded of my lack of control and trust God in my parenting.

The poet Kahlil Gibran sums up the complicated and beautiful mystery of caring for your children and releasing them at the same time.  Here is an excerpt that is meaningful to me.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

I pray that I will be a stable and glad bow for my son, the adventurous and spirited arrow.

And I hope for no more school phone calls any time soon.

Adoption Awareness Month and Our Charge to Care for Orphans

foster-children 1

November is Adoption Awareness Month.  Last week, our church participated in Orphan Sunday, which is a day designed to raise awareness in churches about the plight of orphans and the serious call Jesus makes in the Bible for caring for this innocent and vulnerable population.  My husband and I were asked to speak about our adoption story and our personal views on caring for orphans.  It caught me off guard at first, and I thought to myself, “I am all about helping orphans, but how does that relate to our adoption story?”  Maybe I have had the definition wrong in my head of what an orphan is.  So I looked it up.  No, the dictionary clearly defines the word as “a child whose parents are dead.”  Josh’s biological parents are very much alive, so I wrestled with this idea of my son being an orphan.

According to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), there were almost 400,000 children in the foster care system in the United States in 2012.  Many of these children have at least one living biological parent, so technically, they would not qualify as orphans either.  So here’s the catch.  We read over and over again in the Bible to take care of orphans, but the existing definition of the term orphan isn’t comprehensive enough anymore.  Orphans are also referred to in the Bible as “fatherless”, which seems to get a little closer to our modern day foster care children.

As I dug in to this idea of “What is an orphan?”, I realized with much sadness that my son was an orphan.  He was fatherless and motherless and in need of a home.  That pretty much sums up the concept of orphan to me.

My son and I love to watch the movie Hook.  I love any story that can capture the beauty and magic of childhood, but beyond that, there is also a powerful adoption theme.  The whole reason why Peter goes to London, leading him to have to return to Neverland to save his children from Captain Hook, is to honor the Wendy character for her lifetime dedication to the plight of orphans.  I felt a tremendous weight on my heart as I watched it this past week because, maybe for the first time, I realized how powerful and serious the call to care for orphans really is.  It was Wendy’s life work and passion.  And we have no evidence from the Peter Pan story that she was doing it to fulfill God’s call.  She just knew it needed to be done.

I know that adoption is not for everyone, but what are some ways you can care for orphans?  Have you been defining the word too restrictively also?  Where are the needs in your own community?  I don’t think it is a coincidence that Adoption Awareness Month is in November.  This is a time for us to be thankful for all that we have.  And in our thankfulness, it is also a time to challenge ourselves to give.

I would love to hear your stories about what the call to care for orphans means to you or some ways others can get involved (including me!).

If you are interested in learning more about adoption from a Christian viewpoint, I strongly recommend the following resources:

Adopted for Life by Russell Moore

The Spirit of Adoption: At Home in God’s Family by Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner

adoption 2   adoption 1

Love hurts and heals

Ari 3

Love really is such a complex word to define.  It’s a verb and a noun.  It’s a value; it’s a command.  It makes the world go round and it never fails.  Love is all you need.

If these sentiments are all true, why does it seem so hard to obtain this kind of pure and exhaustive love?  What does it mean to love fully? Can we humans ever really do it?  From a spiritual perspective, I would say no.  Not apart from God anyway.   But that doesn’t let us off the hook for trying.  As flawed as our human view on love may be, I believe there are moments when we can experience true, authentic love and connection.  These are glimpses of what real love is supposed to look and feel like, and they are often missed because our own fear, shame, pride, and insecurity get in the way from really being able to experience it.  When these moments happen and we actually notice them, it’s like we transcend our humanity and tap into the supernatural. A heartfelt and joyful laugh over childhood memories with my siblings; a tight hug from my son when he is scared; crying with dear friends when someone is going through intense heartbreak.  In those moments, if I am attuned enough to notice, I thank God, and I think to myself, “This is love.”  It’s real and vulnerable and divine.

These past few weeks, I feel like I have been living in that place of real, raw, deep love.  Some dear friends of ours have been undergoing unimaginable heartache and adversity.  Their newborn daughter, Ari, is only 2 weeks old, and she has been battling for her life every day of it.  When I think about what my friends are going through, I can’t imagine how they are functioning.  But every day, they reach out to their loved ones by writing texts and blog updates about their little girl, along with their own fears and struggles and prayers.  By the end of these correspondences, I find myself encouraged and spurred on by their hope and their love.  They have chosen to love their daughter and those around them boldly and genuinely, even through fear and uncertainty.  I have seen such an outpouring of love toward them, for them, from them, and around them that just being near to the situation makes me feel more whole and connected.

It seems that in our most painful and despairing moments, we can experience the most love.  As I think back on how deeply loved I felt when we went through the process of adoption, I remember all of the raw emotions and intense vulnerability I displayed to those around me during that season out of sheer necessity.  And because of that genuineness, I allowed people to truly love me and be loved by me in return.  I don’t know which one comes first.  I imagine it changes depending on the circumstances.  By choosing to take the risk and be vulnerable, I experienced such deep and intimate connection in my relationships during that overwhelming and emotionally exhausting time in my life.  I am not sure how I would have gotten through it without that.

As I watch my dear friends choose to be vulnerable, choose to be real and raw and connected, it has inspired me to do the same.  That’s the amazing thing about being unguarded and choosing to love even when the world may tell us to pull in and shut down.  It inspires people.

After two weeks of intensive medical interventions and thousands of prayers, baby Ari is taking some huge steps forward.  Some of the big, scary machines are gone, and my friends are finally able to hold their daughter.  She is not out of the woods, but the relief and gratitude for her progress is palpable to all who are invested in this baby girl’s life.  Because my friends chose to be vulnerable and let us in to their very personal and painful battle, they have provided their child with an enormous network of love.  I know that for the rest of Ari’s life, she will hold a special place in my heart because I feel so invested in her life already.

Ari 1                    Ari 2

I would never wish for my loved ones to undergo hardship.  And I can’t begin to understand why things happen the way they do.  So maybe the question isn’t “Why do bad things happen?” Maybe the real question is, “Will you choose to love and hope no matter what?”  My friends have. They have taught me not to be afraid to love fully.  Even when it really hurts.  “This is love.”