Category Archives: Family

Facing your fears- Honoring anxiety and courage in children and grown-up children

A New leaf part 3- Facing Fears

 When I was 8 years old, I heard a story on the news about a man contracting HIV through a needle left on a seat in a movie theater.  Panic struck me, and nothing felt safe.  Of course, going to movies was out.  There was no way I would fall victim to the same trap.  Eventually, it went beyond a fear of going to movies to a fear of public places.  If someone could be sick enough to put an infected needle on a movie theater chair, what’s to stop someone from putting a needle in the sand at the baseball field or in my backyard?  The fear became so consuming that one day I found a sewing needle on the floor of our garage, and I started panicking and shaking.  I asked my mom through tears and heavy breaths, “Why would God create a world and allow it to be filled with so much awfulness?” (Still a question that stirs me deeply.)

I was a scared, anxious kid.  When I heard about something bad happening to someone else somewhere else, I immediately assumed it would happen to me, too. (This could also have been the beginning stages of narcissism now that I think about it.)  Once I had a fear in mind, it became consuming and would lead to irrational scenarios where I would be doomed and there was nothing anyone could do to help.  Looking back, I empathize with my mom and siblings. It must have felt so helpless to watch me panic inconsolably.

One of the reasons why I became a child and adolescent counselor is my deep understanding of how small and vulnerable a child can feel and how big and scary the world can seem.  Although I still experience acute fears and high levels of anxiety at times, I no longer exist in that place of constant fear that consumed much of my energy as a child.  As I got older, my fears took on more of an existential focus.  Who am I?  What is my purpose?  Does anything I do really matter?  Are we all just a speck of dust on the top of a flower being carried by a clumsy elephant named Horton?  You know, the little things.  Although these questions could consume me if I let them, I have found ways to re-focus myself from them by connecting with others, engaging in purposeful activities and embracing faith so that the unanswered questions could coexist with what I believed to be true.

I asked my college students to write down alternative words for common emotions like sadness, anger and fear.  A descriptive emotion that came up to quantify fear was the word petrified.  Literally paralyzed; frozen with fear.  Think of the curse “Petrificus Totalus” from Harry Potter.  The victim’s body goes rigid and the only thing he can move is his eyes.  I know that feeling.  And as I incorporate my thoughts and beliefs about fear with my passions and visions for my life, that word seems to be a common reaction to moving forward with my dreams.  Sometimes, I literally feel stuck where I am out of fear.  Fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of rejection, fear of change… Staying still feels safer, but in actuality, it perpetuates the state of fear- the petrification.

As a parent, it is remarkable to watch your child overcome fear.  My son has a beautiful blend of a cautious and adventurous spirit that I really admire.  I can see his initial concern and fear when he is presented with something he doesn’t understand or hasn’t experienced before, but it is followed by a desire to try.  It’s like he  knows he will regret it if he lets his fear take over.  He has a bit of a formula for how he handles his fears.  He starts out tentative and stays close.  He checks things out for a minute or two and takes it all in.  Then he slowly engages.  He tries this new activity for a few seconds, then looks back and smiles.  *This is my cue.*  “Stay close, but I am going in.”  After participating for a little while, he runs over to me with excitement in his eyes and asks if I saw him.  I answer “I sure did!”, and he returns to the activity, not as a novice anymore, but as a student who is catching on and ready for more challenge.

Josh learning to ride without training wheels

Josh learning to ride without training wheels

josh karate

Josh’s first day at Karate

josh jumping on trampoline

Josh jumping at a trampoline playground

josh climbing

Josh climbing his first rock wall

I want to experience life that way.  I don’t want to miss out on adventures because of my fear.  And I don’t want to model for that my son.  I want him to know that fear is normal and appropriate and even necessary, but that it doesn’t have to win.  Some things are more powerful than fear- like love.  In the third book/movie in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, one of my favorite characters, Eowyn, niece of King Theoden, wants to fight with the men. When talking to Aragorn about fear, she says that she fears neither death nor pain, but rather a cage“To stay behind bars until use and old age accept them and all chance of valor has gone beyond recall or desire.”

ewoyn in battle

Eowyn does fight.  In fact, she defeats the witch king, who  touted that no man could ever kill him.  (To which she responds, “I am no man!” Love it.)  And she doesn’t do it for valor or for pride or even for her country.  She does it for her friends.  Her family.  Love.  I have things to fight for.  People to face fears for and take risks for and even get hurt for.  As she rides to battle with the childlike hobbit Merry riding with her, she says the words that I hold on to any time I feel weak and petrified in the face of of my fear.  “Courage, Merry.  Courage for our friends.”

The next time you think about avoiding your fears, ask yourself, “Who needs my courage right now?” And “Who could suffer if I don’t stand up and fight?”

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.

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.”

Carolina on my Mind: How I Learned to Embrace my Outdoorsy Self

                 mountains 8-fam pic                                                                             mountains 4-fam pic 2

I am not really an outdoorsy person.  I like nature and the environment and fresh air, but when left to my own devices, I am much more comfortable in air conditioning.  Coincidentally, I have a son who loves animals, bugs, dirt, exploring, risk and all that accompanies the outdoors.  (Pretty common interests for a 5-year-old boy I guess).

It is amazing (and scary) how quickly we as parents can set tones in our families.  Dave and I joke that one reason we are such a good match is our mutual discomfort with the idea of camping and our similar feelings about loving animals most when they are not in our homes.  And who knows? In the nature vs. nurture debate, maybe Josh would feel this way if he had been in our care since he was born or if he had our genetic predispositions.  Maybe not.  All I know is that our son is nothing like us in either of these ways.  He is an animal-lover, an adventure seeker, and a naturalist.  I have always admired people like this, but I just accepted (and even touted) the fact that I am not so much like that.

 mountains 7-scenery 1                                    mountains 6-scenery                                    mountains 2-deer

And then I went on vacation in the mountains of North Carolina.  What a beautiful reminder of the magnificence of creation.  As we were driving further and further into the mountains, I felt calmer; more peaceful.  I cared less about emails, texts, and even responsibilities (luckily, because I didn’t have service anyway).  I gave myself permission to breathe and take it all in.  It felt like Josh and I were both children in that car, looking around and pointing out amazing things we were seeing.  It was awesome.

What is it about nature that brings me back to myself? To God? To genuine connection with my surroundings?  It seems like I just get busy and preoccupied, and I stop looking around.  But when confronted with such majesty as I was during that drive into the mountains, I was forced to notice; compelled to appreciate it.  How could I not see such raw and magnificent beauty?

A few months ago, we got a sweet card and gift from family friends who live out West.  In the card, there was a check, and with the check, we were instructed to put the money toward doing something adventurous and outdoorsy with our son.  I felt slightly overwhelmed at the thought, but also motivated.  “We can do this.” I thought.  I just wasn’t sure how.  For a while after receiving it, I kept my eyes and ears open for opportunities to use this gift.  And then slowly, I forgot.  Life got busy, and our outdoor time remained limited to bike rides and the occasional park visit.

It wasn’t until we were hiking in the woods of North Carolina that I remembered the gift and the charge that accompanied it.  I smiled as I realized why these friends did what they did.  It was not out of judgment for our suburban/city life.  It was out of pure passion and enthusiasm for nature and their firsthand experiences in how meaningful it can be to engage in outdoor adventures.  After spending a few days connecting with nature and seeing the joy in my son’s face as we hiked, searched for animals, and had picnics, I realized that I wasn’t just doing it for my son.  I was being renewed and invigorated right along with him.  I get it a little better now.  I want to get it even more and keep growing in my love and appreciation for nature and the environment.  I don’t want my son to grow up feeling separated from his parents in his love for the outdoors because there are enough reasons why kids can feel separated from their parents.

So I have come to a conclusion.  I think people who say they are not outdoorsy (like me) could be setting themselves up to be nature-avoidant.  And after my renewal experience this week, that is just not acceptable for me anymore.  I may never want to bike to work every day.  It is likely that I will still prefer to take my son to a movie than on a nature hike.  I am pretty sure I will always prefer to see a snake in a book than in real life.  So maybe I am not really outdoorsy.  But I am a nature lover.  I do value the earth and all of its inhabitants (including snakes).  And I need to make that more clear in the way I live my life.  I need to emphasize it more in the way I parent and the way I spend my time.  If I want my son to believe that I value something, I have to show him.

My son has taught me more this year than anyone else in my life.  And this is one more thing.  Thank you, Joshua, for reminding me to love and appreciate nature, animals and even bugs.  And thanks to our dear friends for sharing this week with us and lovingly encouraging me to tap in to my outdoorsy self.  It’s in there.  It just takes a little coaxing to come out.

My personal challenge this week: Do something adventurous.  And do it with people you love.

                                                      mountains 1-walk                              mountains 5-group pic

It’s official. I’m a mom.

josh-sick day

I have been a mom for over a year, and these days, my parental identity is solid and clear.  I remember when we first brought Josh home and started introducing him to people, I felt sort of awkward and uncertain.  I realized in those moments that other people, even those who knew me well, didn’t know me as a mom, which meant I was introducing them to my 4-year-old son and Parental Karin at the same time.  The trouble with that was that I didn’t really know what my identity as a parent looked like yet. For a while, my parental identity seemed to be getting stronger when I was interacting with Josh and establishing our family with my husband, but it seemed confusing and foreign when I was engaging in other aspects of my identity or when I was in “mom-centric” environments where the parental identity of others was in full force and I felt like mine was catching up.

Naturally and gradually, I have grown into my parental identity, and now I have very few days where I experience those out of body “Whose life am I living? How did I get here? This must be a joke” moments.  And that feels good.  It feels like growth.  But as established as I may feel as a parent, I appreciate it when I have new experiences that expand my parental identity, like today.  Well, around 2 am this morning to be more precise.

Caution: This next part is not for the weak-stomached.

After a year of parenting, I am finally able to commiserate with parents who say, “I was up half the night with my sick child.”  Of course, Josh has been sick before.  But this time, he was sick sick.  Like puke everywhere kind of sick.  His upset tummy turned into a full-blown violent expulsion of his stomach contents, and I was right there in his bed to witness it (and smell it and see it and even hear it).  A million thoughts raced through my head, including, “Yuck”, “Poor baby”, “I have to get him to the bathroom”, and “I am going to have to clean this”.  Oh, and “I hope it didn’t get in my hair.” 

It was a rough night, to say the least.  But I have to say, it was a good night, too.  Some situations just make me feel more like a mom, and as someone who still feels like I am catching up in the parenting department, clear “mom moments” are encouraging and motivating for me.  The image of the throw up all over his bed I could do without, but the image of my son looking at me with upset eyes and a quivering lip, seeking comfort from me, that is lasting and sacred.

After Josh’s hard night, we all woke up feeling dazed and depleted, but unified.  We had made it through, together.  We had a lot of things planned for the day (t-ball, a brunch, a drive to Orlando for a special bridal shower), but the reality was that all of our plans changed as soon as Josh got sick.  Dave and I looked at each other with understanding and contacted the people involved in our plans to let them know we wouldn’t make it.  I don’t like to disappoint anyone.  Sometimes, that results in my pushing myself too hard or compromising my highest priorities for extra commitments, but not today.  Today, I trusted my instinct and snuggled with my son in my pajamas.  And it was a really sweet day.

Most days, I feel the strain of balancing family, work, school, and other commitments, but not today.   Today, I pressed in to my parental identity and let everything else go.  And while he napped, instead of doing schoolwork or making calls, I watched Star Wars and ironed clothes.  And this distinction makes me more than a mom.  It makes me my mom. 🙂

Life gets busy and full before I even notice it has happened.  Sometimes, it takes a force of nature, like a hurricane or projectile vomit, to slow me down and simplify things.  As I reflect on the last 24 hours and I think about my son sleeping soundly in his bed (with clean sheets), I feel full.  And I realize that I feel a little more like a mom tonight than I did last night.