On Power and Autonomy and Working It Out in Unlikely Places

I sit on the couch, eyes red from crying, as she asks me, “So you’re wanting to take back your power?”

Jarred out of the sea of my emotions, I respond with an emphatic, “No! I don’t want power!”

Curious, she leans in, “Hmmm…why not?”

I tell her, “If I have power, then I am responsible. I am accountable. I am to blame. If things just happen to me, I am a sympathetic character. If I have power and want things and make choices and people disagree with those choices, they will blame me, not have sympathy for me. I don’t want that.”

Questions of identity swirl around in my mind these days. Who am I? What is most important to me? What am I doing with my “one wild and precious life?” Where am I going?

And the fact that I have choices – that I am a responsible actor, an agent in my own life – is an ever-present under-current.

Isn’t it odd that I’d lost sight of that for a time? I have this beautiful life, and I absolutely set myself along this path. I have always wanted to be good, and I have striven to live up to that ideal. I am a Christian wife, a homeschooling mom to four kids, two of whom are adopted, I have spoken at women’s retreats, and I am smart and I am kind, and I am generally good at most things that I do. And yet something has been missing for me, in me, along this path.

And I’ve wondered, as I’ve moved forward, am I a passenger, or am I the driver? I have sometimes lived as if I am walking out a formula, doing all the right things – not like I’m having an adventure in this beautiful world.

I realized recently that all of this is part of what I’m working out, what I’m practicing, in what is perhaps an unlikely arena.

I remember starting to ride horses. Miranda had a scary fall and was resistant to getting back up on her pony right away, so I rode him around for a little while before we got Miranda back up there. It was intimidating! It felt like I was so high up in the air (two years in, this is hilarious to me – he was just a pony!) – and like I didn’t actually have any control over what we were doing. But also? I had fun. And I took the risk of asking if it would be ridiculous for me to take lessons with the girls after that. It felt vulnerable to pursue something that I knew I wouldn’t be good at and something that would be just for my enjoyment. And then when Courtney said it would be fine for me to start doing lessons with the girls, I was both anxious and excited.

I’ve shared before about what I was learning through riding – about having fun, about being the learner instead of the teacher, about being vulnerable, about asking questions, and about persevering.

I’m still learning, but I’m finding that the lessons are different right now.

I’ve started jumping recently, and I love it. For a second, you’re flying. But it requires more of you as a rider, and there is more risk involved.

I’m learning that sometimes what looks the most intimidating ends up being the most fun.

I’m learning that the people around you matter. It helps to watch, to pay attention to what others are doing and to be able to observe and reflect. It helps to have a guide – someone on the ground who can tell you when you’re going too fast and when you’re pulling too hard on your reins and how to use your seat and what in the world just happened there.

But I think most of all, what I’m learning is that if you want to be a good rider, you cannot be a passenger – you are responsible for riding your horse. You cannot just sit there and expect that things will go well. Whether you take action or not, you are still responsible for the outcome. Where your horse goes and what they do along the way is, in large part, up to you. There are a lot of things you cannot control – but you are still responsible for working with what you have. You use the tools you have, you work on developing your skills, and you grasp at the glimmers of deeper understanding that flash before you. Even if you’re not the rider you wish you were, even if you don’t really know what to do, you are still responsible for doing your best and trying to make it happen.

Courtney tells me that I’m not as afraid as I should be. I’m certain that this is largely because it has been a long time since I’ve fallen. I know that another fall is coming, and I’m scared that once it happens, I’ll lose that willingness to try anything Courtney and Kris point me toward. I don’t want to lose it. This is where I’m practicing being brave.


Dispatches from my Dining Room (No 6): Day 99: Activities Outside Our Home?

Obviously, as homeschoolers, the primary structure of our lives was already set up pretty well for staying home before the pandemic hit. However, my kids did lose all of their activities outside of our home – in addition to play dates with friends, we used to be part of a homeschool enrichment group, all four kids swam 2-3 times per week, the big kids and I usually rode horses a few times per month, and we attended other activities (art shows, concerts, museum shows, etc) as we could. We stopped all of that abruptly mid-March. That seemed like the wisest course of action – particularly for our family, with multiple vulnerable members.

It has been a long few months, though, without that social interaction, without the ability to swim (especially now that the summer weather has arrived!), without the ability to move our bodies in ways other than walking, running, and biking. Matt and I have been talking about whether there are ways we could give ourselves and our kids some opportunities to leave the house and have fun without seriously compromising our safety. We’ve been reading articles about how the coronavirus spreads and looking at rankings of activities in terms of their risk levels.

Where we’ve landed is that we need to maintain our separation from most of the activities in which we had previously engaged. It just isn’t safe to go hang around indoors with large numbers of people. It isn’t even safe to have sustained close proximity with others outdoors.

But the one activity that seemed much less risky than others was horseback riding. It’s basically an activity that requires social distancing – if you get closer than one horse-length away from another horse and rider, you’re putting your horse (and yourself!) in danger of getting kicked!

I talked to our trainer, who has put into place guidelines limiting numbers of people at the barn at any one time, which made us feel safer returning. She also has rules about social distancing – essentially, if you can’t tack up your own horse, you can’t come right now, because that would require having someone outside of your household super close to you as they helped you prepare to ride and take care of your horse after riding.

I returned to lessons a couple weeks ago – obviously taking care of my own horse and riding outdoors and staying distant from everyone else. I love having an activity that challenges me in a different way than my everyday life and that is purely fun.

And this week, I took the girls to ride, and we made sure to schedule their ride for a time when no one else would be in the barn. They aren’t self-sufficient, but having a mom who participates in the same activity as you and can help you catch and care for your horse has its advantages.

It was so nice to give them this opportunity to leave the house and get back to riding! This was only the third time since March that Miranda had even been in a car at all. And this was the only actual activity they have done in months (other drives included exciting missions such as “going to the hospital parking lot to change a flat tire” and “going to throw rocks in the river” and “taking recycling to the drop off sites” and “just going for a drive”). This was significantly more interesting 😉

They didn’t do a lesson or focus on building skills – this was all just about having a chance to ride and have fun.

Miranda was thrilled to be given the opportunity to help a pony who has a pretty low weight limit (and thus can’t be ridden by most of the adult and teenage riders who have been at the barn recently) get back into work.

MeiMei wasn’t sure she remembered horses being this large!

It took a bit of time for them to get used to being back in the saddle, but once they got going, they were back to trotting, weaving, and riding all around!

I’ve certainly enjoyed getting back into riding, and I’m glad the girls were able to go this week, too. In this world in which we almost entirely stay home, it’s nice to have one very low-risk activity we can do!

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

The stories we tell ourselves matter. In this time of the coronavirus pandemic, there is a meme floating around that illustrates this powerfully.

But it applies more broadly, as well. I’ve been thinking about the stories I’ve told myself throughout my life. I remember, in my twenties, desperately wanting Matt to get a good job, so that I could quit my job and have babies and stay home and raise them. I literally didn’t know what to do with myself when that wasn’t happening. Part of that was truly a desire of my heart – from the time I was little, I have always been determined that I wanted to have children and build a family. My new year’s resolution at the age of 4 was to have lots of babies! And I wanted to take care of my babies – I had worked in daycare, and I knew that I didn’t want my kids spending 40+ hours a week there. But also, I had fully embraced the story that good Christian women got married, had babies, and quit their jobs. As a rule-following perfectionist, obviously this was what I was going to do. I remember being absolutely shocked when my therapist at the time suggested that not everything was absolutely black and white, and perhaps there was a way that I could have children while also working. WHO KNEW?!?

And now, at the age of 37, I have had (and adopted) the babies. I am raising them (while working part time). We have a good life. And yet – I wonder about the stories I am embracing and occupying.

It is ironic to me that a major catalyst for both Matt and me examining the stories we tell ourselves was our participation in the evangelical movement of adoption. Adoption seemed, on the surface, to contain the perfect story of beauty and redemption – there is a child who has no family, and I step in and become their family, just like God had adopted me into His family while I, a sinner, had been an orphan separated from Him, and we all celebrate this triumph. But wait. That child DID have a family at one point. Why do they not have a family anymore? Could there be evil involved there? Perhaps that evil is direct. Maybe there was trafficking. Perhaps it is murkier – pervasive systems of injustice, poverty, and racism. Also, need it be said that I am no savior? Any story I tell in which the analogy sets me up to be the God-figure deserves to be questioned. And while my adoption into God’s family is described as a transition from sin and brokenness to love and wholeness, my child left one beautiful language and culture in order to be assimilated into another lifestyle – that is a loss. The reality is far more gray than the story we tell.

I began to realize that that might be true for other stories, too. I’m reading Glennon Doyle’s book, Untamed.

She writes of women, “[W]e do not honor our own bodies, curiosity, hunger, judgment, experience, or ambition. Instead, we lock away our true selves. Women who are best at this disappearing act earn the highest praise: She is so selfless. Can you imagine? The epitome of womanhood is to lose one’s self completely” (p 116).

I wonder – where is my self? I don’t know.

I spent the first seven years of Matt’s and my marriage working to pay off debt and support him as he pursued the career of his dreams, and I followed him to Missouri once he got that job offer for which we had both yearned. We had our first baby in 2010 and brought home our last in 2016, and I have fought to get everyone set up with every medical treatment and service that they need. I have been homeschooling everyone. These are good things. I have wanted to do every single one of them.

I have watched other people’s children and delivered more meals than I can count. I have met with people to talk about all manner of struggles and offer what counsel I could. Those are also good things.

But I also wonder – am I living the life that God designed me to live? Am I using all of the gifts He has given me? Am I experiencing the resonance that comes with doing what I was born to do?

Glennon Doyle also writes, “I quit spending my life trying to control myself and began to trust myself. We only control what we don’t trust. We can either control our selves or love our selves, but we can’t do both. Love is the opposite of control. Love demands trust” (p 116).

I excel at self-control.

And she says specifically of motherhood, “Mothers have martyred themselves in their children’s names since the beginning of time. We have lived as if she who disappears the most, loves the most. We have been conditioned to prove our love by slowly ceasing to exist…When we call martyrdom love we teach our children that when love begins, life ends. This is why Jung suggested: There is no greater burden on a child than the unlived life of a parent. What if love is not the process of disappearing for the beloved but of emerging for the beloved? What if a mother’s responsibility is teaching her children that love does not lock the lover away but frees her? What if a responsible mother is not one who shows her children how to slowly die but how to stay wildly alive until the day she dies? What if the call of motherhood is not to be a martyr but to be a model?” (p 128).

I do not feel like I am wildly alive.

I debate with myself about whether this matters. Is this just a first world problem? Am I having a mid-life crisis? Do other people feel this way? Am I selfish to want to feel wildly alive?

I believe in a wholehearted love of my people. I believe that love is sometimes – often – sacrifice. Jesus tells us, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13). Even as He laid down His life, He did not lay down His self. He fulfilled all of who He was as He lived – and died – on earth.

Am I fulfilling my self as I go about my daily life? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I like my life. I like the work I do. I want to keep doing it. And yet, I think there is more to it than being whatever anyone else needs me to be in any given moment. I don’t know what that looks like. Glennon Doyle writes, “Heartbreak delivers your purpose…We all want purpose and connection. Tell me what breaks your heart, and I’ll point you toward both” (p 269).

I just started the book Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us about Freedom, by Kelley Nikondeha, last weekend. In her introduction, Sarah Bessey writes, “For too long the notion of biblical womanhood has felt weak and ineffectual, a cookie-cutter version of a 1950s sitcom that didn’t even exist in real life, and yet it crippled and silenced generations of women in the church. In Defiant, Kelley lays out a feast for us of the truth about biblical womanhood: the resistance, the strength, the civil disobedience, the collaboration, the truth-telling, the drumming, the wit, the holy liberated power of women who know their God. She connects everything she learned from the women of Exodus to the women of our past and our time whose subversive strength continues to spell the downfall of evil and injustice. In these pages, you will learn to recognize women at work. This book is more than permission; it’s a clear call to rise up to the Exodus mandate for all of us” (p x-xi).

That sounds so inspiring for me. I wonder, can I be part of that?

I don’t really know what to do or how to do it.

I want to try to figure it out. I want to be part of that story.

God as Gendered

Years ago, a book called The Shack was released and stirred a great deal of controversy within the evangelical Christian world, in part because of its portrayal of God the Father as a large Black woman. Interested in what it was really all about, I picked up a copy of the book and actually enjoyed it a great deal. No, I don’t picture God the Father as a large Black woman – but neither do I picture Him as an old white dude with a flowing, snow-white beard, XY chromosomes, and a penis. The God who exists outside of space and time, who spoke the universe into being, creating it ex nihilo, who created us in His image – I don’t think He can be reduced to either of those human-like representations.

I liked what the God character said in the book, when asked why She was showing up as a woman – “I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature. If I choose to appear to you as a man or a woman, it’s because I love you…Hasn’t it always been a problem for you to embrace me as your Father? And after what you’ve been through, you couldn’t very well handle a father right now, could you?” The main character, “knew she was right, and he realized the kindness and compassion in what she was doing. Somehow, the way she had approached him had skirted his resistance to her love. It was strange and painful and maybe even a little bit wonderful.”

Isn’t that who and what God is? Showing up in ways we don’t expect? Looking different than what we thought? Demonstrating compassion and kindness? Working in our lives in ways that are strange and painful and wonderful?

I just finished reading Sarah Bessey’s latest book, Miracles and Other Reasonable Things, and one of the most encouraging parts of it was her description of her thought process in imagining God mothering her.

She writes, “Most of us identify God in parental terms as a father – and that is deeply meaningful to me as well…But just as my own father gave me a glimpse of God’s good character, so did my mother. She could not be erased from the goodness of God’s expression…I find that the older I get, the more I care for the ones I love and for the world, the more I need both – I need both the energy of the mother and of the father. I need the fullness of the expression of God, not a lopsided caricature of either. And in times of suffering or loss or exhaustion, it has turned out that I needed a mother” (p. 172-173).

And she tells of how this has played out in her life recently, saying, “This has been the question God has given to me as a practice of spiritual discernment during my life with chronic pain: How would God like to mother me today? If God was a strong, patient, wise, kind, no-nonsense, deeply loving mother, what would She want for me today? It’s a great question to ask in prayer when I feel scattered and exhausted and empty” (p. 172). She notes, in her discussion of self-comfort versus self-care that, “Perhaps self-care is simply joining with God to care for ourselves as a mother would care for us” (p. 170).

I am well aware that this idea of God as Mother – or, really, as anything other than an old white dude – can be controversial among Christians. One of Rachel Held Evans’s last tweets before she died was, “I’ve written four books, hundreds of blog posts, and dozens of articles, and only once have I used a feminine pronoun for God. People still point to that as a reason I should be killed in order to quicken my eternal torment in hell. No joke.”

And yet, there is imagery of God as a mother in multiple Bible passages. Isaiah 66:13 says, “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” Psalm 131:2 says, “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.” Jesus compares Himself to a mother hen, saying, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37).

I’m finding myself comforted tonight, thinking about God as both Father and Mother. I am encouraged as I think about the difference between self-comfort and self-care and how this image that Sarah Bessey sets forth of, ” If God was a strong, patient, wise, kind, no-nonsense, deeply loving mother, what would She want for me today?” can be a guide for me as I move forward. And I am thankful for the men and women who have gone before me, who are reflecting back for us the wildness, the nurture, and the utterly-beyond-gendered-ness of the Living God.

Refresh Chicago 2017

About 2 weeks ago, I embarked upon what I believe was my first weekend getaway without husband or children in my nearly 7.5 years of motherhood – and it was glorious.

Don’t get me wrong – I love my family deeply, and had I yearned for weekends away prior to this point, there would have been ways to make it work. Last spring, I heard about the Refresh Chicago conference, and it sounded like some of the other adoptive moms with whom I’ve connected on Facebook were going to make the trip, and I mentioned it to Matt, who announced that I should make it happen. I went ahead and registered, and I convinced one of my best friends, Marisa – who is now just weeks away from becoming an adoptive mom herself! – that she should come with me.

I wasn’t exactly sure until recently exactly how I’d handle the travel details, but I need to give a huge shout-out to Chosen and Dearly Loved for truly facilitating that part of my trip to the conference. They blessed us with a matching grant when we were in process to adopt FangFang, and they reached out to their families this summer to ask if people were interested in going to this conference and offer grants to help make that happen. They paid for a huge portion of my costs of attending the conference. To my knowledge, they are the only grant organization that offers post-placement support, in addition to support during the adoption process, and that is such a huge need, that I am really thrilled to see them stepping into.

Because of that, I was able to fly to the conference without worrying about the cost, and that made it so much easier than having to negotiate the logistics of train or megabus or rental car travel. Plus I arrived in time to have tea with one of my good friends from our Chicagoland days! It was so nice to get that little bit of time to connect with her again in person. Then the rest of the trip was pretty packed with conference activities and adoptive mom hangouts!

The conference itself was great. We began Friday morning with worship, and one moment struck me and has stayed with me. There’s a line in one of the songs we sang – “and darkness tries to hide, and trembles at His voice” that was so humbling to sing in a room filled with adoptive and foster parents – because we have seen the darkness. And I want to believe with my whole heart that the darkness out there in the world today that has come into play in separating our children from their first families and in so many of the realities of their lives is truly trembling at the voice of the living God.

There was also incredible teaching. Kristin Berry is a phenomenal story-teller and encourager. Cindy Lee of the Halo Project OKC is an amazing resource for casting vision for healing from trauma and for practical guidance in how to parent kids from hard places – I’ve appreciated what she has to say every time I’ve heard her speak. I loved getting to hear from Kia Barton, now an adult adoptee, about her experience growing up as a black child with white parents. This was the first time I’d heard Paris Goodyear-Brown speak, and I was highly impressed with her deep understanding of the adversity that children who have experienced trauma can face and how to walk with them through their challenges. I was so encouraged by these reminders of how I can walk alongside my children and love them well.

In addition to the actual content of the conference, it was so encouraging to be surrounded by a group of people who get it. Wanting to be intentional about facilitating those connections and that sense of connection, in our welcome packets, the conference organizers even handed out “me too” signs that we could raise when what other people were sharing resonated with our stories.

Within this context, there was so much background that didn’t need to be explained, so many premises that didn’t need to be established. These people understand the difference between chronological age, developmental age, and family age. They understand the desire to seek for our children racial mirrors and connections to their birth cultures. They understand the tension inherent in telling our own stories and advocating for adoption while keeping our children’s stories private. They have lived the long-term realities of the lasting effects of food insecurity. They grapple with the fight for ethics in adoption. They understand what dysregulation is. They understand sensory needs. They have fought for attachment, both for their children to feel bonded to them and for them to feel bonded to their children. They don’t blink at stories of 3 hour rages; or piles of junk food wrappers found under beds; or seemingly compulsive lying, cheating, and stealing; or alternative high school placements; or police involvement with families. They understand complex developmental trauma and how it can manifest and what it looks like to parent children who have lived through that.

There is such encouragement from being surrounded by people who are walking this journey of adoption and foster parenting, too. One of the biggest blessings of the conference, for me, was getting to spend the weekend with these ladies. Thank you, Kathy, Marisa, Diane, and Becky for hanging out with me!

I actually came home feeling a bit sick, but I enjoyed the opportunity to spend some time snuggling my babies.

We’ve had a lot of dysregulation since my return, and that has been challenging, but I find myself more patient and better equipped with strategies to walk through all of that with my kiddos. It was definitely a great conference and a great trip overall. Would you join me next year?!