Category Archives: Family

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.

If I live to be 103…

“Mommy, is Gramps older than my Daddy?”

“Yes, honey.  By almost 70 years.”

Age is a funny thing.  I am 30 years old, but it only takes one moment to transport me back to my 10-year-old self or my 20-year-old self.  A certain smell or image.  An unexpected memory triggered by a familiar face or story.  These instances come up even more now that I am a mother as I watch my child experience new things and grow.

Last weekend, I spent some time with my grandfather who turns 103 next month.  No mis-type.  103.  He was 72 when I was born, so he has basically been “old” ever since I can remember him.  He wasn’t the grandparent who played on the floor with me or took me to a baseball game.  His house was always very calm, which, as a child, translated to unstimulating and fairly boring.  My brother, sister and I did the best we could to come up with games to occupy ourselves.  These included Letter Opener Sword-Fighting, What Looks the Coolest Under the Magnifying Glass, and, my personal favorite, Find the Whitman’s Sampler Box.  Sometimes, we pretended to be detectives or spies, exploring Gramps’ office for clues and analyzing old pictures.

12-27-2010 13-30-17_057

I loved my grandparents very much.  I have one left, and I often think about how different my life would have been if I had gotten more time with my other grandparents before they died.  When I see Josh interact with my grandfather, I feel so lucky.  Since Josh didn’t get to meet Gramps until he was 4 and I wasn’t sure how much exposure he had to older people before we met him, I prepped him a lot for that first meeting.  I kept telling Josh that Gramps is really old.  He would compare him to someone for a frame of reference.  “Is he older than Daddy?”  “Is he older than Grammy?”   I realized during those conversations that there was no comparison I could make to help Josh grasp just how old Gramps was.  I probably talked it up a little too much because, by the time Josh met Gramps (at his 102nd birthday party), he kept about a 10-foot distance for most of the day and seemed worried that this old man would break into a million pieces when Gramps finally got him to sit on his knee.  For a while after that, Josh referred to Gramps almost exclusively as “that really, really old guy”.

josh and gramps meeting

Recently, my grandfather had a fall, and he broke his hip.  Every other time he has been hospitalized, I have of course been concerned, but I am just conditioned to expect him to keep living.  After all, that’s kind of his thing.  But this time, I felt a tremendous pressure on my heart.  I didn’t necessarily think he was going to die, but I found myself thinking about all of the questions I had for him and all of the time I wasted for so long not really talking to him and learning from him.  I couldn’t remember his sister’s name or how old he was when his mother died.  I didn’t want Josh to only think of him as “that really, really old guy”.  I wanted him to make memories with him and I wanted those memories too.

To be honest, I was concerned about what my grandfather would think about Josh’s adoption.  He has always been loving and generous to me, but I still worried that he wouldn’t be able to wrap his mind around this.  Or worse, that he could wrap his mind around it, and he wouldn’t approve.  I feared that he would accept it outwardly, but that he would see Josh differently than his other grandchildren.  Obviously, adoption is not a new phenomenon, but it was new to my family.  It was new to me.  I found myself thinking that maybe I was asking too much of this 102-year-old man.  Then I remembered a conversation I had with Gramps when I was in college.  I was visiting him for lunch, and he looked at me with sincerity and said, “What are young people thinking about these days?”  I wasn’t sure what he meant, and then he added, “I know that I am old, but it is important to me that I keep learning things about the world and the way people think.”  I remember feeling inspired and motivated by this statement.  I chose to give my grandfather the benefit of the doubt and stop assuming that he wouldn’t understand.

What a typical Millennial generation mindset I have sometimes: assuming that I have to teach my old grandfather something instead of looking for an opportunity to let him impart wisdom to me.  In the process of being open to the knowledge and experience of my grandfather, I can see now that Gramps has grown, too.  Josh has taught my grandfather (and many others) that his heart is big enough to love him fully and uniquely.  I see the amazement in Gramps’ eyes when he sees Josh and realizes that he loves him as if he has always been there.  That is a gift that he could give this 102-year-old man with more life experience than anyone I have ever met.  After a century of life, my grandfather was given the opportunity to experience the beauty and blessing of adoption.

This weekend, Josh met Dave’s 89-year-old grandmother for the first time.  I saw the same wonder and amazement in her eyes as she watched Josh and looked for opportunities to engage with him.  I never knew any of my great-grandparents.  Josh will remember two.  We will have pictures and videos and memories of these special relationships.  I am grateful for the memories I have of my own grandparents, and it saddens me that Josh will not know them here on earth.  But when I think of my Poppy, Gammy and Nana, I feel a warmth inside me.  They are a part of me.  And they are a part of Josh.  Not because of blood or even personal memories, but because of the legacy of love that is passed down from generation to generation.

josh and grandma

On our last visit to see my grandfather before he broke his hip, Gramps made a paper airplane for Josh and they flew it together.  I got it on video, but I don’t think it will ever leave my memory.  In that moment, it was more than just my 102-year-old grandfather playing with my son.  I was transported back to my own childhood and the moments when Gramps would engage with me playfully and warmly.  He was much more than just a “really, really old guy” then, too.

Gramps with kids

If I live to be 103, I hope I keep learning and growing, too. (and making paper airplanes.)