Category Archives: Personal Growth

My son is the cutest: Battling the ego of parenting

A stranger at the grocery store told me how cute my son is, and I said, “Thank you.”

josh butterfly

My son is so adorable. Sometimes I just stare at him for minutes at a time. I wish I could write down everything he says because it is cute and witty and insightful. He is extremely bright. He picks up on things quickly, and he remembers everything. (Which can be good and bad). He is a natural athlete. He loves to dance. He has great rhythm for a 5-year-old. He is a good little singer, too. He sang his prayer the other night, which was precious (and surprisingly on-pitch). He really is the greatest kid.

There are so many reasons why I love being a parent. But do you want to know my favorite thing about being an adoptive parent? The freedom to brag about my kid. Let me explain. I get to talk about how cute and smart and wonderful my child is and people don’t think I am the world’s most self-centered person because I did nothing to contribute to his looks or his athletic ability or his smile. I didn’t take excellent care of him in the womb, playing Mozart and eating organic foods. I didn’t have a natural childbirth in a birthing center or find the best doctor and the most reputable hospital for him to make his entrance. I didn’t sleep train him to teach him to self-soothe and be more independent. I didn’t co-sleep with him to increase his sense of belonging and create the most nurturing, safe environment possible. I didn’t start teaching him to read at age 2 or put a football in his hand as a toddler. I didn’t do any of those things. And because of that, I seemed to have gotten a “pass”. And I take full advantage of it.

After a year and a half of being a parent, I realized that something changed. The comfort I used to feel in not taking responsibility for the first 4 years of my son’s life seemed like a distant memory, and I found my own identity too often wrapped up in my son’s behavior, relationships and overall success. Any feedback that was not warm and fluffy felt like a personal attack on my parenting and Josh’s character. I have been quick to assume that people “just can’t relate” or that our situation is unlike any other so that I could maintain my position and keep my ego intact. All of that healthy distance I thought I had identified as an adoptive parent went out the window and I began taking complete responsibility for every action, word, thought and feeling that my son had. Of course, the irony is that I have been counseling parents for years on maintaining a healthy identity apart from their children and not letting egos interfere with good parenting.

After much reflection, I have realized that my initial tendency not to take responsibility for my son’s early years and my more recent over-identification of everything he does are both wrapped up in my ego. Eek. As painful as this realization has been, I am grateful for it. I tell my clients often that the annoying thing about raising your awareness is that you can’t keep pretending like you don’t see something. Okay, it’s blinding me a little now.

As a parent, I need to acknowledge that sometimes I get defensive because my ego is being bruised. But other times, I get protective of my child because it is my job. Sometimes, the line between the two is hard to distinguish, so I will keep working on it. I will stand next to all the other parents who fight this battle of ego, biological and adoptive alike.

And in the meantime, I will continue to enjoy my “pass” and talk about how cute and intuitive and precious my son is. Not because of anything I have done (or even anything HE has done for that matter), but because of the miraculous and awe-inspiring gift that children are. I want to grant all parents a “pass” to talk about how amazing your child is every now and then. You also have my permission to stare at your children for minutes at a time. Parents of teenagers, you may get some heat for this. That’s okay. I still see my mom look at me that way sometimes- like I fell from heaven and landed on her lap and she can’t even believe it. That’s not pride or ego. It’s gratitude. And it makes me feel extremely valued.

A stranger at the grocery store told me how cute my son is, and I said, “Thank you.” I don’t know why. It just came out. What I wanted to say was, “Yes, he is. And he’s loving and insightful and funny and full of life. And I am so honored to be his mom.”

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.

Who says I can’t cook?

Who says I can’t cook?  Well, up until about a month ago, I would have said that about myself.  I also would have added that I am not crafty either just to make sure people kept their expectations low for me in those areas.  How did I come to adopt these labels about myself?  And what does it serve me to maintain them?

Throughout my childhood, my mom never put a ton of passion into cooking.  She reserved most of her passion for other things, like being an attentive mother, helping people in need and showing kindness to anyone she met.  We were certainly always well-fed, and I still find comfort in some of our “staples” growing up, most notably chicken, rice, corn & beans.  It is exactly what it sounds like, and I still love it.  One exception to my mom’s lack of passion for cooking is her commitment to making the best turkey soup possible every year with the leftovers from Thanksgiving.  She dances around the kitchen adding things and tasting it as she goes.  I love watching her do this.  Every year, my step-dad tells her it’s her best turkey soup to date.

As I got older, I neglected to take the time to learn to cook, or really to learn anything else that would lead to becoming a self-sufficient adult.  I remember the summer before I left for college, I was standing in our laundry room with my older brother and sister while they showed me how to wash my own clothes.  I thought we had a pretty good system up until that point.  I brought my clothes to the laundry room, my mom washed them, whoever needed the washing machine next would switch them to the dryer, and then my brother would iron my clothes as needed.  I didn’t see the problem with this arrangement.  Here lies the root of some of the labels I have carried for far too long.  I am actually too good at being helpless sometimes.

Growing up, I was the classic youngest child, and I milked it for all it was worth.  At some point along the way, I began believing that I wasn’t good at certain things to perpetuate this image of needing help.  As I got older, I turned the image on and off as it suited me, feeling extremely competent in some areas of my life and eager to receive help in the areas that I had decided  weren’t important to me.  Don’t misunderstand me, I believe in the value of people with certain skills or expertise helping others who may not have the same gifts.  But I took this to a whole new level.  I taught myself and those around me to lower their expectations for me in some areas where I may have been fully capable if I challenged myself to care or try.

This mindset perpetuated through my young adult life as well.  Although I did reluctantly learn to do my own laundry, I still avoided activities like cooking or really any creative outlet by saying that “I am just not artistic” or “I don’t really cook”.  Because of my personality, I quickly made these labels into jokes, and before I knew it, others had picked up on the joke as well.  I have vivid memories of people close to me laughing about my lack of domestic and artistic abilities, and I laughed right along with them because, let’s face it, I taught them to do that.

Throughout my college and young adult years, my labels of being “not artistic” and “not a good cook” suited me just fine as I sought to become a professional woman.  I didn’t need to be a crafty person or a great cook.  In fact, I had convinced myself that those identities didn’t fit into my image of a strong, professional woman.  (Other than Martha Stewart, but she had just gone to prison.)

When I got married, I began to feel a faint desire to be a little more domestic (although I don’t think I ever admitted that to anyone else).  I began cooking dinner more and trying out new recipes.  I actually enjoyed it, and I found myself thinking about how food is prepared and how I could replicate my favorite restaurant dishes.  My husband is passionate about a lot of things, but cooking has never been one of them, so he seemed excited about this spark of interest I was developing.  Since he was doing about 85% of all the household chores (and still does), I figured cooking dinner was the least I could do.

Over time, the excitement of cooking began to wear off and it started to feel more like a necessity again.  I realized that my husband, although appreciative of my efforts to try new recipes, would probably eat a piece of cardboard if he was hungry enough, so being adventurous with ingredients or spending more than 20 minutes on dinner seemed like an unproductive use of time since I was just cooking for the two of us.  So I went back to our “staples” and gradually lost my passion for cooking.

Fast forward a few years to the arrival of our 4-year-old son.  I had to get a little inventive at mealtimes again.  This time, the goal was not to cook the most delicious, interesting meal I could find.  The goal was to find the quickest, most discrete way to sneak vegetables into my child’s limited food selection.  When we first got him, there were so few foods he would eat, but eating as a family was a high value for us.  So we all ate spaghetti with pureed spinach and chicken and macaroni & cheese with pureed squash.  After a few weeks of this, I found myself craving whole vegetables, fish, and well-seasoned side dishes.

I began to tentatively pick up some cookbooks that I hadn’t opened in years.  I found myself scrolling Pinterest for recipes and looking for excuses to cook real meals.  I fell in love with the idea of preparing meals with friends and hosting dinner parties and potlucks.  I began asking questions about dishes that others had prepared and making mental notes of ideas I wanted to try.  I practiced recipes that excited me, making little tweaks to them the second and third time around.

As a working mother, I still rely heavily on my Crockpot, and I am often scrounging to put meals together on weekdays.  But once or twice a week, I experiment.  A few times a month, I invite friends over for dinner.  Every trip to the grocery store now involves buying something I have never tried before to add to one of my “staple” recipes or to become the centerpiece for a brand new invention.

Don’t panic, friends.  I have no plans to quit my day job and enroll in culinary school.  I still find myself feeling my way around my kitchen, sometimes in the dark.  But I am having fun and allowing myself to be creative and a little adventurous.  I am tired of these old labels and ready to try on some different ones, like: Karin, who is creative in her own way and who really enjoys cooking with her friends.  I am also tired of using these old labels to avoid reaching out to others or pushing myself to grow.   God has given me gifts that I try to share with others.  But I have been reminded recently that it is not true serving if I am only serving out of my own comfort and competence.  I want to be as eager to help someone  plant a garden as I am to give someone a personality test.  I want to look for opportunities to serve out of my comfort zone and to let go of labels that hold me back from doing so.  I can make a meal for a family with a sick parent or a new baby.  I can help decorate for a goodbye party for dear friends.  I can do crafts with my son and work on DIY projects for my house instead of running to the store to buy something.

What labels have you carried for too long?  What would it look like to get rid of them?  What’s holding you back?  Living with purpose involves being deliberate and intentional about who you are, who you hope to be, and what kind of message you want to communicate to others.  It’s never too late to redefine yourself.

Broken Wallflowers

This weekend, I spent some meaningful time with three close friends from grad school.  Reunion weekends are a nice break from normal life, which has been pretty chaotic with friends moving, family visiting and all the beginning of summer transitions.  Our lives have changed significantly since grad school.  We have attended each others’ weddings and celebrated the arrival of our children.  For two of us, the journey to motherhood was more complicated and painful, making it even more precious to celebrate with each other.

I love having close friends that are in the counseling field.  It enriches me and challenges me to keep growing as a counselor.  Since our lives have changed so dramatically, our reunion weekends have also.  Instead of beach days and late dinners followed by nights out on the town, we spent this reunion weekend at my friend’s house, swimming in her pool with our children,ordering pizza and watching a movie while our children slept. We decided to pick up a movie at Red Box, and, after much deliberation and teasing about our limited exposure to good entertainment now that we have children, we chose The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  There were a few reasons for this choice.  My friend Eileen and I both read this book while in grad school, so we felt nostalgic about it.  Also, since it has a mental health bent, we thought it was appropriate for a bunch of counselors.

As soon as the movie began, I was captivated by the characters, the innocence and passion that accompanies adolescence, and the realistic depiction of the impact of abuse and mental illness on individuals, families and communities.  The main character, a high school freshman who spent time in a mental hospital after his best friend shot himself, delivers a heartbreaking portrayal of the struggle to belong and be happy while living in fear of the next time he “gets bad again”, as he calls it.  The audience also learns by the end of the movie that the main character had been repressing memories of sexual abuse by a trusted family member.

As my friends and I were processing the movie afterwards, we tried to determine his mental health diagnosis. (A twisted game that counselors play.   I love it when people ask me if I am psychoanalyzing them.  Of course I am.)  As I thought back to his character and the layers of pain and hurt he had experienced, the first word that came to me was broken.  There are different connotations for this word, and the mental health community at large may not support my calling someone with mental illness broken, but to me, being broken is a natural part of being human.  In fact, sometimes we have to recognize our brokenness in order to truly heal.  It’s like breaking a bone.  It is painful and damaging, and the bone needs to be re-set in order for it to heal.  If the bone is never re-set, then the person will go through life with a broken bone and probably some intense side effects, like excruciating pain and limited use of that part of the body. (Or worse, total numbness.)  As mental health professionals, sometimes the goal is to help our clients re-set their broken parts.  As a Christian, we are told that their is beauty in the brokenness because it forces us to rely on God instead of ourselves.

When I was driving home from my friend’s house that night, intense grief came over me. Almost two years ago, after walking through intense brokenness and pain with one of my clients for a long time, she made a decision to stop fighting her daily pain and constant torment by ending her own life.  She reached out to me before she did it, not so that I could stop her, but to have someone to connect with.  I knew when I heard her voice that it was over.  That was the worst day of my life.  I was filled with my own grief and regret and confusion, but more than anything else, I felt angry.  I was angry that God would have allowed the abuse and pain to happen to this woman, and I was angry at all of her abusers for contributing to her pain.  After a lot of grieving and processing with God, my husband and a select group of friends, I realized that, although I could not save her, as hard as I tried on several occasions, I gave her something that few others had given her.  I provided her with a safe place to feel and think and say anything.  Also, I loved her.  I mean, I really loved her.  And she knew it.

I can’t begin to understand why things happen the way they do.  A part of me was broken that day when this dear person took her own life.  There are so many people around us that have experienced deep, disturbing, life-altering pain.  Many of them are wallflowers, unsure how to reach out or take the first step toward genuine connection.  There is a quote from the movie that really impacted me.  In this scene, the main character is at a party with some of his new friends, and maybe for the first time, feels accepted.  One of the other characters raises a cup to him and says, “To Charlie!” The shy, awkward main character responds, “I didn’t think anyone even noticed me.”  And his new friend replies, “We just didn’t know there was anyone cool left to meet.”

Reach out to wallflowers. They might need a friend.  And they may be the friend you didn’t know you were missing.