I recently threw a baby shower. A unicorn baby shower. An imaginary unicorn baby shower. The lucky unicorn had quadruplets, wouldn’t you know? Streamers hung from the ceiling of my normally tidy formal living room. Purple balloons rested on every sofa cushion. Homemade signs with sweetly misspelled words adorned my dining room walls.
Parenting comes in many forms.
As we’ve been spending all our time at home, like the rest of the world on stay-at-home orders due to COVID-19, doing anything that brings creativity into our lives is a yes. When my 7-year-old started sharing her imaginary world of Stella the Unicorn a couple of weeks ago, I became fluent in unicorn. Soon her 5-year-old sister followed suit, and now a second imaginary unicorn has had a baby shower (triplets this time).
What I hope my girls don’t perceive is how hard little things like this are for me. Once I’m knee-deep in such unbridled whimsy, joy wins me. But when my daughter first asked if we could get streamers and balloons, make signs and banners, I first wanted to say no, or to tell her she needed to do it herself. I’m so tired. I don’t think I have the energy for this.
Our family is unbelievably blessed amid this pandemic. We were already homeschoolers, so our schooling world was not turned upside-down like it was for my friends whose children attend public or private schools. Both my husband and I are still employed. We have a home, food, and toilet paper. Really, what more could I ask for?
But I do ask, and I do ache. My heart swells while I am loving these up-close, silly, opinionated little girls. There is another space in my heart swelling with love for the far-off ones. This love pulls me backward into a world of what was and what could have been; this love tugs me forward into what I hope will be.
Photograph courtesy of the Treibel Family
And loving from such a distance sometimes wears me out.
Three years ago, April 9, 2017, I awoke to a massive hemorrhage of blood and fluid. I was 23 weeks pregnant and had found out two weeks prior that my amniotic sac had broken due to months of pregnancy complications. I had a “slow leak” of fluid, and we had such hopes if I could remain on bed rest and keep as much fluid inside me as possible, our son Elliot would have a fighting chance at life. So, I lay in bed at home for those two weeks, praying and trusting and believing all would be well.
7 weeks of living in the hospital, of my husband and mom and mother-in-law rotating care of my then 4- and 2-year-old girls, seemed like the miracle we had prayed for. When Elliot was born on May 29, 2017 at almost 30 weeks gestation, weighing almost 4 pounds, he exceeded every expectation. His lungs were small, he needed lots of support to breathe, but he was here.
There was nothing in me that did not picture my future with Elliot.
Photograph courtesy of the Treibel Family
So, when that miracle little boy died in my arms on day five of his life outside the womb, my mind could not comprehend. The doctor put the stethoscope on Elliot’s sweet back and said, “He’s gone.”
I’d already buried two sweet babies I miscarried. All I could think was: Not again.
Again. I would bury another child. The progression of my time with him would culminate in a funeral, a headstone, and desperate season of grief and PTSD.
In the three years since Elliot went to heaven, it’s been the wrestle of my life to find God’s light in the darkness that caved in on me when my son died. I am still wrestling, and I have emerged back into God’s light fundamentally changed. I realize as time goes by that I am still parenting my babies as intentionally as I parent my girls. I can’t read Elliot a story or help him get dressed or wipe his messy face. But I love him and my other heaven babies from a distance every time I say their names, celebrate their special days and breathe in the reality of them. I see them everywhere: when I gaze at a bird in flight, when I inhale the mystery of a star, when I study the freckles on my daughter’s nose.
A year after Elliot died, the “love with nowhere to go,” as I’ve heard grief described, needed somewhere to go. Days were a blur of finding joy in tea parties and teddy bear picnics with my daughters, then being cut down by grief. I remember I could make it until about 1:00 before I had to shut myself away to weep. The smell of my tears will always remind me of that season. I needed an outlet, a place to put my hands in the grief and make it into tangible love.
So, I became a foster parent.
When a social worker dropped a two-year-old boy at our door in August 2018 I wondered what on earth I had been thinking. My grief for Elliot was still so fresh; I still could not make it through the day without breaking down. And now I was going to be a foster mom?
That first month was a strange time, indeed. Our foster son was getting used to all of us; we were getting used to ALL of him in his various moods and behaviors. But that’s the crazy thing about love—it seems to grow stronger in the struggle.
Before I knew it, I was in love with that little boy. I could see him fitting into our family. Some days were so hard, but he was like the defibrillator my heart needed to awaken from my grief. I carried my love for Elliot and my other babies into holding my foster son through his tantrums, crying with him when his mom missed a visit, helping him navigate the uncertain new relationship with the family member he’d soon live with.
And just like that, as abruptly as he fell into our lives, he was gone. I sat in his room after we dropped him off, replaying the memories held there. Reading him Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site, building with Stackadoos, and hearing his infectious giggle. I also replayed the goodbye earlier that day. He’d clung to my jeans when he realized we were leaving him there. “I wanna go home! I wanna go home!” And we left him crying.
Six months of being mom to him, and it was over. Again. Again, a child had moved into my heart, but had to go. And yet, just like my babies in heaven remain in my heart, so does the boy who was my foster son.
I am on the pinnacle of motherhood again, but this time my longing is tugged forward. Our family is adopting a child from Colombia. Us! Adopting! It’s happening. It had finally felt so close, felt as if my ever-growing girls were on the verge of being big sisters to a sibling who would stay. After disappointment and loss and weeping more tears than I thought my body could produce, after paperwork and payments galore, we got so close. I could envision us flying to Colombia this summer, could see that awkward first meeting in my mind’s eye. I let myself feel excited and nervous for the slow, hard process we call family.
And then COVID-19. I know it’s stopped everyone’s world. I’m not pitying myself as if I’m some anomaly in all this. But now, adoption is just frozen. Offices closed. Flights grounded. Borders secured. We are not going anywhere anytime soon, nor is any adoptive family.
Now I love a child from a distance who is somewhere, someday to join our family. But the distance is getting to me.
Once again, my precious child is out of reach. I am trying to be patient, but some days I am so tired of this! I want to see my child and speak with my child and get to the hard work of becoming a family with my child. I feel like all the aching for my miscarried babies, Avery and Everett, for my beautiful son, Elliot, and for my foster son is building up in these arms that just want to HOLD MY CHILD! I know it won’t be perfect, but that’s the point. Real relationships are not perfect; they’re hard and I’ll make mistakes and I’ll have times I regret the whole thing. I’ll be amazed at how my child changes and makes progress and then I’ll be discouraged when there are setbacks. IT’S ALL A BLESSING! The reality of failures and forgiveness, of intimacy and anger, of blowing up and simmering down—this is what I’m lucky to call parenting. I don’t get that with my children in heaven. I don’t get that anymore with my foster son. I don’t get that yet with my Colombiano. There’s just this waiting and aching and hoping it’s not too long.
I’ve realized recently that even though I’m waiting to physically hold and see and interact with my child in Colombia, my parenting journey with him or her isn’t waiting to begin. My love and parenting of my children who aren’t here anymore did not end with their departure. Mom love just sticks, doesn’t it? It’s like the love of God in that way: a love that can’t be inhibited by any circumstance, any distance, any death. In this time and space between me and my child in Colombia, I’m already mom.
So maybe next week my girls and I will throw a birthday party for a Yeti. Who knows? We’ll do whatever we need to do to survive and thrive in this waiting season. And I will wrap my arms around my little girls and be ever thankful they are right in front of me, in all the moments of delight, and in the frustrations of bad attitudes, sibling fights, and whining. Parenting comes in many forms. I’m so thankful for the ones I get to love up close.
And even as I ache for them, I’m so thankful for the ones I love from a distance.
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