our first year of adoption.

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The best way I know to describe older child adoption or sibling group adoption, is that it’s like culture shock.

Let me explain. This is what it was like to move to India:

We planned and dreamed and worked so hard to get to this new country. And after a 24-hour trip in three different airplanes, we set our feet on the ground. I’ll never forget that first nighttime ride from the airport, the cool wind in my face, craning my neck to take in the streets and leafy trees and buildings. Everything. I was exhausted to my core from juggling two toddlers on the Longest Trip Of My Life, but I was full of wonder. We did it. This is our new home.

The four of us managed to sleep a few hours that first night, in our friends’ flat, and awoke to the blinding India sun the next morning. Jet-lag made us feel like we’d been hit by a truck. We took a shower in a floor-to-ceiling tiled bathroom with a shower head that, bewilderingly, soaked every inch of the tiny room. And then we tracked water across the guest room and got dressed and stepped outside in soggy flip-flops, cotton-brained and slack-jawed, into dust and trash and noise and cows and many, many people.

We’d studied about moving overseas and traveled to other countries; read books and taken classes and spent a month in New York City in an international neighborhood. I was prepared for the first stage of culture shock: The Honeymoon Stage.

Except, that it didn’t happen to us. For whatever reason — perhaps it was the country we chose, perhaps it was landing in that country with a three and a one-year-old — we bypassed the Honeymoon Stage and landed smack on our rears in Disintegration.

Reality didn’t so much creep in, as punch us in the face.

Now, please understand this. We chose to move to India — nobody twisted our arms. We wanted to be there. We knew it was the exact right thing.

And also, we were drowning.

Everything was different. Every possible sense was assaulted every minute of the day. There is no way for me to describe to you the smells, the sights, the dirt, the tastes, the crush of people, the noise. Oh, the noise.

But we made ourselves set one foot in front of the other and get out there. Every single day. With the help of friends, we moved into our flat. We bought furniture. We found the office to set up Internet, and a preschool for our three-year-old. We learned to pay in cash and shop for groceries (a process that involved not one but a handful of shops). We learned to hail auto rickshaw cabs. We hired a house helper and learned to navigate this strange new cultural relationship of having an employee in our home every day who didn’t speak a word of English. We learned to brush our teeth with bottled water, and to disinfect fruit and vegetables before we ate them. We took our kids to the playground. We ordered take-out.

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I list things for you that took an unimaginable amount of time. Everything moves slower in this country. And nobody seemed as bothered by that as us foreigners.

Have you ever noticed this? When you’re in a season that’s difficult, time just slows right down too. And so the hours we waited for our internet company to come were actually twice as long as normal hours. Each day felt like a marathon.

And yet. Piece by piece, agonizingly long day by agonizingly long day, we began to find our bearings in a brand-new place.

Of course, at the time it didn’t exactly feel like it. It felt like struggle. It felt like one step forward, two steps back. It felt like being the stupid one, the one that didn’t know any of the rules or how to make friends. It felt like wanting to go home where life was familiar and comfortable, where we were known and respected. It felt like a whole lot of anger, gushing from someplace deep inside where we didn’t know it existed.

We put in the seconds and the minutes and the days and the hours, and fought hard not to give in to the thought that This will never get better.

And then eventually, without our hardly realizing it, it did get better. Although at the time it just felt like pointless hardship, all of those seconds and hours and days had been adding up to accomplish something, to get us somewhere.

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Slowly we found some confidence and the right places to shop for meat. We could go on neighborhood walks and not worry constantly about getting lost. I could set out with my backpack and just round our street corner into the sea of humanity, and move along with them, enjoying the sounds and color and, well there was just so much life. We began to find things to love about our city, little things at first, but we clung to them fiercely, and added to their number. We made friends. We watched how our children saw everything in India as a great adventure, and we tried to be like them. We laughed more.

Friends, I wish I could give you fuller picture of our Independence Stage of culture shock, but as many of you know, we had to leave India suddenly after just a year and a half, due to my health. While the rest of me recovered and actually wanted to put down some roots in our new home, my body never did. And so we had to leave, when we’d only just begun. That was a whole other kind of shock, but it’s a story for a different time.

But after that first year, I tasted a sip of Settling In. The anger had eased. Our city began to feel a tiny bit like home.

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And so, as I begin to reflect on our first year of adoption, this is the picture that comes quickest to mind. In fact, I thought many times over this past year, This, right here, feels exactly like culture shock.

It’s the head-spinning, earth-shifting, wonder-brimming, anger-gushing, bone-tired-exhausting, tears in bed at night, will-this-ever-get-better jolt. Except with adoption, I’d up the ante just a wee bit by adding, there’s-no-going-back. Ever.

I believe that my body and my mind and emotions experienced the trauma of adding two new strangers to our family, in the same visceral way as landing with a pile of suitcases in a completely foreign country for the first time and realizing on Day One that the honeymoon stage was the ride home from the airport.

But I’m hear to tell you today, at the end of our first year, that we’re okay! We’re emerging from the crazy. We find more things to love every day about this strange new country that is our family of six.

I’m so happy to be living here.

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one year.

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Our family of six turns one today! We made it!!!

Some first-year adoption reflections to come … in the meantime, David and I are celebrating by going to bed early.



five on friday.

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Judah. My brother Danny keeps him well-stocked with Calvin and Hobbes these days.

 

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Amelie. We think she’s part Labrador. She thinks so too.

 

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Gabriel. This is the face I get when I ask, “Gabe, focus! Are you listening to me!?” I think it’s pretty cute.

 

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Noah. His pout stops strangers on the street in delight. He can work a crowd.

 

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Owen. My sister-in-law and I do an all-afternoon play date swap on Thursdays. One Thursday she takes all my kids, and the next week I keep hers. It’s one of our favorite traditions. This Thursday during our cousin-time-show-and-tell-with-popcorn, Owen pulled out his tooth for the audience. Everyone was very impressed.



poetry teatime.

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I really enjoy watching writer and homeschool coach Julie Bogart on Periscope, and when I first learned of her idea for a poetry teatime with kids, I felt instantly intimidated. And I wanted to throw up my hands in despair. After all, I’m just trying to get through the day, here, people. Forget flowers and tea and poetry!

But she is just so wise and down-to-earth, and explained this little habit is one of the easiest ways to expose your children to something really beautiful (poetry!) — because kids love treats! So why not combine a set-apart time for treats with poetry?

She also says that poetry teatime is good for moms (or dads!) too, because, whether we homeschool or not, often parenthood in these little years can look like us running around like crazy all days fixing meals, doing laundry, cleaning, overseeing school/homework, and forgetting to just do something fun to sit and connect with our children.

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So I determined to at least try out this poetry teatime thing. I even put it on our daily schedule for this week for accountability, and found that it was fun to have Judah ask about it, intrigued.

And I’ve decided to blog about our experience so that, like me, you can see that it’s really not intimidating at all!

Our first poetry teatime was very simple and inexpensive — it could’ve been free, but I saved my money for two things: a tablecloth from World Market (because we do school at our table and also eat peanut butter sandwiches and broccoli, and I wanted to transform it into something different and pretty for awhile), and a pack of scentless candles in glass holders from Wal-Mart.

Julie Bogart says that whatever you do, make sure each kid has their own candle to blow out! She was right — they adored that little addition (by the way, it’s amazing how much kids love candles. it’s one of the easiest ways I know to make a mundane event become special to them; sometimes we even pull out the candles during school time). When we were at the library last week, I found a couple of books from the Poetry display for us to try out, and added The Llama Who Had No Pajama, from our own bookshelf, because I know my kids love it.

Everything else we had on hand too, including the borderline-stale brownie bites from our New Members class on Sunday night. I wanted to bake something, but also wanted to make this ritual simple so I don’t stress myself right out of doing it.

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Here was the key to a successful Poetry Teatime: I set everything up during the last 20 minutes of the kids’ afternoon room time. Perhaps that means I deprived my children of the fun of setting up together, but I just knew I couldn’t.even. And so I felt calm instead of harried, mostly because I wasn’t tripping over little people or having to answer two dozen questions about everything I was doing. So when the kids emerged at 3:00 pm, the table was set and the candles were flickering, the classical music station was playing on Spotify, and I was just stirring up a pot of chai tea.

If you think it all sounds perfectly idyllic: it was! And then my kids entered the room, ha ha!

Here’s the real scoop: 1. Judah instantly rebelled against even trying the chai, so I poured him apple juice. 2. Gabe got mad that Judah had apple juice and he didn’t. 3. Gabe and Noah did not like my chai, so next time I’m making a pot of hot chocolate for the three boys (although Gabe now tells me he also does not like hot chocolate) — or who knows, maybe they will just drink apple juice and my daughter-who-understands-me will sip real tea with me. 4. Noah spilled his chai all over the new tablecloth.

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But guess what?! I decided in the beginning that a spill would most definitely happen, so I minded not at all! I let him go on sipping/mixing/licking crumbs off the tablecloth to his heart’s content until we were finished. I decided that arguing would happen and I wouldn’t be able to please everyone, and we’d make a mess. But that wouldn’t keep us from having fun, darn it!

And we did!

The best part of the whole thing was exactly what Julie Bogart suggested: For about 30 minutes, I sat still and looked at my kids and we laughed and read a few poems and just generally enjoyed being together. Gabe begged me to read “just one more” of Mary Ann Hoberman’s poems, while Judah dashed into the living room for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, so he could read us the song of the Sorting Hat.

At the end they asked if we can do it again next week!

 

 

Note: I was inspired to try my own adult version of poetry teatime the other night with a glass of wine and a few candles on the back porch. I read Elizabeth Alexander and Langston Hughes aloud to myself (because the experts say that’s the way poetry ought to be experienced), and I enjoyed myself so much that I thought, Now why don’t I do this more often? You should try it!



our newfound love of audiobooks.

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I fully credit the Read Aloud Revival podcast with our new audiobook obsession, or perhaps I should say my kids’ new obsession. I’m such a visual learner that I’ve never much enjoyed listening to audiobooks, which is unfortunate when it comes to long road trips. I find that if I can’t see the words on the page, my mind wanders. But as you’ll see, I’m now training myself to listen to audiobooks and enjoy them.

The kids and I tried a couple of audiobooks together about a year ago, but they weren’t fans, and since I truly love to read aloud, we abandoned the idea.

Enter into our family two wiggly, noisy little boys. Suddenly, I can hardly read aloud two sentences without an interruption. I’ve scaled way back reading aloud this year, because it’s just been too hard. The little boys have grown to do better and better with picture books, but forget chapter books.

I’ll make them sit at the table and play or draw during our morning read-aloud time for school (which is probably 30 minutes total), or they can always run off and be noisy in another room, but beyond that it’s hard to get hours of reading aloud done like we used to when we got caught up in a really great book.

So this winter I decided to give audiobooks another shot. I signed up for the free Audible.com trial, which gives you a free audiobook or series to download (and keep!). I chose the complete Ramona Quimby series, by Beverly Cleary, because we read Beazus and Ramona for school this year and loved it, and because it was the largest/most expensive series I could find for my free credit. Well, Judah and Amie adored listening to the whole series! They plowed through 19+ hours of stories in less than a month, and then started right back at the beginning.

And since then, we’ve never looked back.

Before I give you a list of audiobooks they love, a couple of thoughts.

 

– Do I listen to books with my kids? For the most part it’s just them (and by “them” I mean largely the two oldest kids). Their main times for listening to audiobooks are during afternoon rest time, and at night before bed. But over time I’ve listened in on large portions of the Ramona Quimby series and love it.

There’s something childlike about having a story read to you. I find it makes me slow down, laugh more (Beverly Cleary is so much fun, for instance), and feel a delight that’s different when I read aloud. After serving others for a living, it feels like being served.

However, I don’t stress out when I can’t listen with them. Sarah Mackenzie gives a guide to 5 great questions to ask to get your kids talking about books, and she mentions that sometimes her own conversations with her kids are even better when she hasn’t read the book they’re reading, because they don’t feel like she’s drilling them or looking for a specific answer; she just genuinely wants to know what they think. I like that.

 

-How do we listen to audiobooks? Typically on the iPad or phone. A couple months ago I broke down and bought the kids a CD/cassette player (because my mom gave us a stack of old cassette tapes from my childhood). So we start with searching online for books we can download and listen to on the phone or iPad, and if they aren’t available there, we get them on CD.

I kept my Audible subscription after seeing that the kids wanted to listen to the Ramona series again. I have a special $7.99/month deal for three months, and then it goes up to $14.99; each month you get a credit for one book or series and discounts off additional books, and thus far I think it’s worth every penny. I use it to purchase my kids’ favorite series and books that aren’t available at our library.

 

-I’ve begun looking to audiobooks as entertainment rather than TV or iPad games. I’m not saying we never watch TV or movies anymore, but more and more I’m offering audiobooks instead. Of course the kids are disappointed when they can’t watch DVD’s on car rides or play games, but they’re getting used to it! TV has become a special weekend activity, and they almost never ask for iPad games anymore.

The big kids and I drove back from as airport run to Charlotte recently, and listened to Little House on the Prairie the whole ride home. They complained at first, but the three of us got swept up in the story and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. We’re a family who really enjoys music and usually listen to it in the car, but David and I have already begun talking about choosing a book to listen together as a family on our drive down to Florida in May.

 

-The kids almost always have something to do with their hands while they’re listening (and so do I): they draw or color, play with Legos or Amie dresses her American Girl dolls. If I’m listening with them, I’m making lunch or folding laundry, but sometimes I pull out my adult coloring book or make “fashion girl” paper dolls with Ams. Somehow keeping your hands busy helps you to pay attention.

 

-Do I worry about audiobooks replacing reading time for my kids? I did in the beginning. Judah reads to me every day for school, but beyond that, his pleasure reading lessened considerably for awhile when first diving into audiobooks, and I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing (although now he’s on book 3 in the Harry Potter series, so it turns out that I didn’t need to worry).

Then I heard Andrew Pudewa of the Institute for Excellence in Writing speak on the importance of reading aloud to older kids for their language and thought patterns and ability to communicate well (listen to the podcast or read this excellent talk here). It set my mind at ease, and if anything, encouraged me to offer audiobooks more to my kids, not less.

Having said that, during these years while I have complete control over what my kids listen to, I make sure to only select good literature. I want to fill their minds with beautiful stories and language, not so that they’ll be “advanced,” but to grow their imagination, empathy, and love of really great writing. I peruse book lists, get ideas from podcasts, etc.

I so wish Judah would listen to Harry Potter on audiobook with me because I’ve heard it’s magical, but he’s enjoying reading the series to himself right now. He’s such a visual learner like me, that I understand. There’s just nothing in the world like the experience of holding that well-worn hardcover book in your hands and seeing the printed pages. But maybe one day we’ll listen too!

 

– Experiencing stories together has been so good for Judah and Amie’s relationship! They’ve always been best buddies, but I see their interests merge more as they share hours upon hours of fun stories. Of course, this happens when I read to them too, and I love being apart of those memories. But I’m happy that even when I don’t have time to read to or listen with them, their imagination is being fueled together by characters like Henry and Beazus and Ramona, Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny, Winnie the Pooh, and all of their various escapades.

I can’t wait for the little boys to become apart of these shared memories more and more as they get interested in listening too.

 

-Finally, we’re learning that the “reader” matters! So when I’m getting ideas for what to listen to next, I take note of not only the recommended audiobook, but also the recommended reader if there’s more than one audio recording. Good performers make a book truly come alive for the listeners, and I’m seeing now that may have been our problem with the early audiobooks we disliked.

 

Okay, since this post is getting long, here’s a list of our favorites thus far. Please let me know if you or your family are enjoying any that I haven’t mentioned!

Ramona, Henry Huggins, and The Mouse and the Motorcycle series by Beverly Cleary, read by Stockard Channing, Neil Patrick Harris, B.D Wong

Winnie the Pooh, read by Peter Dennis

The Boxcar Children series (different performers, but the kids have enjoyed all)

Hank the Cowdog series, read by the author (Gabe and Noah enjoy these funny children’s stories too)

Little House on the Prairie, read by Cherry Jones (note: I honestly wish my kids like these books more than they do. I read Little House in the Big Woods to them. They will listen when I turn it on, but never ask for my most beloved series ever. But they’re their own people and allowed to have their own preferences!)

When I’m looking for what to listen to next, I work from this list over at the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog.

Happy listening!



four on friday.

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Judah. He’s always been a boy with an intense passion for one thing at a time (e.g. Star Wars). Lately he’s begun growing and blossoming into a boy with more varied interests. Always Star Wars, of course. And also: Reading. Harry Potter. Swim team. Astronomy. Cursive writing and learning Roman numerals. Hiking. Listening to audiobooks with his sister. I love watching the way his unique personality shapes his interests, and vice versa.

 

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Amelie. She’s very reserved at first when meeting new kids, and boys are easier for her to connect with than girls. As a mother it’s downright painful to see your child on the outskirts, not always certain how to insert themselves into a group of kids. I think I nagged too much for awhile, so finally I sat back and kept my mouth shut and let her work it out. Here at the end of our Classical Conversations year, I’ve watched her come into her own with the other girls, and find some self-confidence. She has become the laughing, happy, chatting-a-mile-a-minute Amie we know. One of my greatest wishes for my daughter is for her to always be free to be herself, and when I see it happen, it brings joy to my heart.

 

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Gabriel. Beautiful boy with stunning blue eyes and a personality that challenges me to the limit. But recently I realized: it is so good that God gave him this intense, inquisitive personality. As a middle child it could be easy for him to get lost in the crowd — not the oldest boy or the only girl or the baby of the family. His desire to be part of the action at all times is fierce; and it’s good that we have to take notice. At the same time, he has learned so much about being patient and waiting his turn and listening while others take the spotlight. He’s also learned to self-entertain, and while he isn’t much for playing with toys, he’ll quietly sit with his puzzles or blocks or roam the backyard searching for bugs. God has used this boy to change me, and I love him just the way he is.

 

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Noah. Mommy: “Ok, Noah, say ‘bye to the moth! It’s time to go inside!”

Noah: “Ok Mom. Bye-bye sweetie!”

 

 



april 8.

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One year ago today, David came home from work, walked into the kitchen where I was cooking dinner, and told me that he’d just received an email from our adoption agency. It was about two brothers, ages 3 and 2, who needed a family. My heart stopped in its tracks, and then pounded on. Wait. What?

But David wasn’t asking me if we wanted to be considered for adopting the brothers; he was letting me know he already responded with a “Yes!”

I was terrified.

But I trusted him.

We knew almost nothing about the boys. We didn’t know what they looked like or their names or where exactly in South Carolina they lived. We knew a few vague details about their situation. We knew that their birth mom wanted an open adoption.

My mind began racing a-mile-a-minute. I couldn’t sleep at night. We’re supposed to get a baby. That’s the path we chose.

Adopting a baby would change our life. Adopting two toddlers would change it way more. I wore myself out weighing each pro and con over a decision that I felt would spell out our entire future — and yet there was too little information to properly make my list, too many variables. I felt the control slipping from my fingers, and I am a girl who likes control.

But also, somewhere in that tailspin, in my heart of hearts, I felt the tiniest sliver of hope.

When I lay in bed, wide-eyed at 2 a.m., I had pictures in my head. Fuzzy pictures, of two nameless, faceless boys, slightly damp and clean-smelling from the bath, piled onto our well-worn India sofa with Judah and Amelie and I for story time. Pounding across the hardwood floors, screeching and wrestling with David. Jumping on our trampoline. Sleeping in the baby’s room.

I was so terrified that first day. I’m a fairly intuitive person, but I had absolutely no sense of the outcome to this story — would these boys be ours, or would they not? Was this email The One, or would we get passed over like we had for the dozen other recruitment emails we’d responded “yes” to?

We generally kept recruitment emails to ourselves, and we didn’t mention it to our kids, but I frantically texted close friends and family, begging for prayer, and they hopped on the roller coaster right along with us. I changed my mind many, many times. I said, “No David, we can’t do this. It’s too much. Please write our adoption agency back and withdraw our names.” And he hugged me like he has so many times in our married life and said, “I know, babe. I love you. Let’s take the leap.”

I wanted my comfortable, semi-predictable life. I wanted the baby’s room that I’d filled with my grandma’s patchwork quilt and an IKEA futon for late-night feedings and carefully painted-and-distressed photo frames with prints. I wanted the the swing and Britax infant carseat and the tray of glass baby bottles our friends had passed along to us. I wanted gauzy swaddle blankets and pacifiers and all the first milestones.

But those boys.

They were lodged in my head and I couldn’t get them out. Where were they, right this minute? What were they doing? They were three and two, and our own biological children were seven and five. They could be folded seamlessly into our family in a moment . . . seven, five, three, two. They are perfect for us.

I ached for them as a mother aches, even as I was afraid of them, of the unknown. I ached for their birth mom, as a fellow mother aches. I cried all the time.

Father, I’m so scared, but I think I know what I want. Will You give it to me?

On Monday, April 13th, I walked through the dining room, carrying a mug of steaming tea to the back porch. It had been five long days since the email. I was Moving On. I happened to look down at my phone, and in that exact moment, it started buzzing, and I saw “David Gentino” on the screen. And I knew.

I’d waited for this call every single day, almost every hour, for six months. Like someone in a dream, I answered it.

And my life changed.

Eleven days later, we dropped our kids at their cousins’ house for the day, and drove the hour-and-a-half to sit in a small city office with our social worker and sign a whole stack of papers. And then, just like that, in what felt like the most anticlimactic moment of a lifetime, David and I had two more children.

By then we knew their hair color and eye color, we knew their names, and the tone of their voices. We’d read them board books in Barnes and Noble and scampered across playgrounds after them. But we didn’t know them. We’d never fed them or changed their diapers or sung them a lullaby. We’d never even heard them cry.

It was the most surreal experience of our lives, and the road ahead was harder than those agonizing 16 days between receiving the first email and adopting our boys. Well, in a way. In a way it was easier, because it was finished and also it was just beginning. We were embarking on the rest of our lives together.

This year has been filled with more joy and love and support than we could ever have imagined.

Right now, I’m sitting in a coffee shop at the end of a long, tiring week. There are tears in my eyes, because I feel very inadequate for this task of mothering four children. I’ve lost my temper this week. I’ve scolded my kids for things that just.don’t.matter. I’ve thrown up my hands at complaining and sibling quarrels and have laundered my duvet, duvet-cover and every part of our bedding, not once, but twice, due to nap-time potty accidents of the three-year-old (don’t ask). I’ve scrolled Instagram to avoid engaging with my family. I’ve thought, I cannot do this one more day. I can’t.

Even as I write these things, I’m fully aware that the above list contains only what went wrong this week, and not the good moments, and that makes me even more frustrated with myself.

And yet. Just now, I pause and think back to this day, one year ago, when it all began. When we took the leap.

We received an email and  we were scared and excited, and we knew that a whole mountain of obstacles stood between us and adopting those boys. Over 16 days, we watched, open-mouthed, as God moved that mountain. By the time the papers were signed we had not one doubt.

God brought those brothers into our home, our life, and some days I’m desperately weary and overwhelmed by noise and touch and little needs. But I know, even in the hard weeks, that God has given us something indescribably beautiful.

He answered our cries for a child, and He gave all six of us exactly what we need. He made us a family. I wouldn’t trade Gabriel and Noah for all the sweet-smelling, wrinkly newborns in the world.

I don’t feel good enough for this task, but that doesn’t matter because God chose me to be their mom. He has written us a beautiful story; can’t I trust Him to be faithful in my hard days and bad moods?

I can.

This is a day for celebrating.

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Photos by Ashley Nicole Photography



an ode to book and tea club.

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Happy Monday and happy April!

I hope that even if you live in the north, you’re beginning to shed layers and see signs of spring. The pollen is starting to ease up here and as you can see from the photo, the azaleas are bursting into bloom, which is one of my favorite things about this time of year (also: open windows, longer days, not having to remember jackets for four kids).

We’re headlong into year two of the Book and Tea Club that my mother-in-law, Linda, and I started last January. It was born out of a longtime dream of mine to start a book club, and the years of wisdom and experience Linda has gained being part of some really wonderful, inspiring book clubs.

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We meet on the last Saturday of every other month, and discuss an entire book at a meeting. We always have tea, of course. And everyone brings a tea treat to share (as you can see, we never suffer for lack of food). It’s been interesting to trace the ebb and flow of our group over the course of 15 months: we started with a bang with 20 or so ladies, dwindled down to about 6 some months, and now seem to have found our stride at around 10-12. To me, that’s a perfect amount for really great discussion.

Our Book and Tea Club is yet another example to me of how so many good things take time and patience. I enjoyed our group from day one. It was great last year. But I’d say this year it’s awesome. I look forward to the meeting for two months, try to save the current book as long as possible before our discussion so it will feel fresh, and take notes of things I want to chat about. And I’m not even the discussion leader!

It just took us all some time. To figure out our dynamic, to grow comfortable with one another. To draw in some new voices.

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My favorite two things about Book and Tea Club right now (besides the obvious: a tea party!!!) are that right before and right after our meeting everyone is busy chatting — that’s a sign we’re getting to know each other! And I love that discussion often veers from our wonderful leader, Jessica’s, questions and takes off in its own direction.

To me those are the signs of a successful book club.

For whatever reason, we have an intimidating number of teachers and former-teachers in our midst. They are smart, you guys! I love hearing about their diverse experiences, and their passion for learning is so contagious. I want to be like them.

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Okay, enough gushing, because I know you really just want to know what books we’re reading! That’s what I’d want to know!

Thus far, we read only novels.  Most of them are new-ish (“new classics?” is that a thing?) This year we voted as a group to read Southern authors. Everyone submitted ideas, and Linda and I nailed down the final list. So far, we’re loving it (I could seriously talk all day long about A Lesson Before Dying).

January, 2016 – Cold Sassy Tree, Olive Ann Burns

April, 2016 (moved to after Easter) – A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest J. Gaines

May, 2016 – Walking Across Egypt, Clyde Edgerton

July, 2016 – Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

September, 2016 – The Water is Wide, Pat Conroy

November 2016 – Broken Shells, Deena Bouknight (local author who we hope to have join our discussion!)

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“Ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.”

– Rainer Maria Rilke



life with anxiety and depression, part 2.

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This is the second post in a two-part series about my journey with anxiety and depression (here’s Part One). I’ve wanted to write about my experience in more detail for years. But until now I just wasn’t ready. In fact, I’d get close to a panic attack even imagining exposing myself like this in public.

It’s quite a victory that I’m sitting here, writing this for you today, and that I feel peace. It’s a sign that God is freeing me (still slowly, friends) from my fierce desire to protect my image and reputation and be strong. As I hide myself in Him rather than hide my brokenness from people, His love frees me to be real with you and with the other people in my life.

Here are five things that help me right now:

 

1. I expect to struggle. Remember I told you about how emotional I get when I panic in crowds? Well in the last few weeks, I’ve moved past some of that because I now go into social situations expecting them to be hard. Truly, it makes all the difference. Instead of being caught off guard, I’m prepared. I take a Xanax when I’m headed to a crowded place or leading Life Group or writing a difficult blog post. I sit close to the door. I get a glass of water. I walk outside or to the restroom and work on my abdominal breathing.

David has been the truest and best of friends in this journey. He told me, “Babe, I don’t care if you sit out in the lobby every single Sunday during the church service, or go sit in the kitchen when I’m teaching our New Members class. Of course I don’t want you to suffer, but your identity is not in sitting with me. You’re free to do whatever you need to do to.” I can’t tell you the relief I feel hearing this, when my mind is telling me the opposite: “You’re failing; you’re letting him down.”

 

2. Instead of fighting to escape the anxiety in the moment, I picture God sitting with me in it. I remember that it will pass. This I learned from years with my counselor and good friend, Ulla, and also in a tangible form from the love of my husband and close friends. You can get in a troublesome battle of fighting anxiety and panic attacks, and that only makes the cycle worse.

And so I’m learning not to fight. I’m learning that this is something that’s happening to me, but it’s not who I am, at my core. At my core I’m unshaken. I’m forgiven. There’s no condemnation for me. I am whole in Christ. And He sits with me when I feel worthless. He clothes me with worth like the whitest of garments.

I’m learning to say to myself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen in this moment? It’s that I will have a panic attack. And that has already happened, and I’ve survived it. I will survive it again.”

 

3. I talk about it. I mentioned this to you before, but now at age 34, I’m telling people more openly in person and on this blog that I struggle. That’s so hard, and makes me feel humiliated. But I cannot tell you how God is using it to help me. It’s strange how all these years my worst fear was that people would somehow find out I’m broken (or, as I shared in my Life Group, that they’ll figure out I’m the crazy person in the room); and yet now I’m telling them — they are finding out — and this exposure has become the very thing that’s helping me most. My worst fear is evaporating.

God has made me, the pastor’s wife — the one who ministers to others — experience seasons of deep struggle and darkness. And I am in need of being ministered to. I need help from people. It has deepened every one of my relationships. My friends and family love me and comfort me. Some of them they tell me that they too struggle — something I would never have known if I hadn’t opened up. Sometimes they say, “I’m the crazy person in the room too.”

When we’re at a crowded wedding, they ask if I want to go sit at the end of the aisle so I can breathe easier. When we’re sitting, visiting in a tiny city hospital room with no windows, they ask, “Is this hard for you? No wonder — it’s suffocating in here!” and I can say, “Yes, it is actually.”

You know what? Sometimes we even laugh about it. We can joke about how “Julie needs an escape plan” at all times. I can’t tell you the relief I’ve found in beginning to not take myself quite so seriously, and having friends who know the not-so-pretty parts of me and love me anyway.

And when my children are a little bit older, I’m going to talk to them too. In simple, age-appropriate ways, I will tell them that Mommy struggles with these things. It is not on their shoulders to fix me or make me not sad or stressed any more. I want to remove the stigma of mental illness for them. I’m not a victim.

As much as I pray against it, with four children, the chances are fairly high that it will touch at least one of them at some point in their lives, and when it does, I’ll be here. I don’t want to project my experiences onto them; I  just want to walk alongside them, as someone who understands. I’m not scared of mental illness anymore.

 

4. I try to take care of myself physically. For awhile I obsessed about my diet, convinced that what I ate or didn’t eat could solve my anxiety problems. I researched the thing to death and listened to way too many voices and tried elimination diets and generally made myself and my family miserable. Last year I needed to take a break from my various diets for awhile to break free from that obsession.

Now I think I’ve found a more healthy balance. I still eat mostly gluten-free, simply because it helps me feel better. Consuming less sugar lessens my anxiety. But I do make exceptions sometimes, and I don’t beat myself up for it.

I quit drinking coffee a couple months ago when my panic attacks were at their worst. That was heart-breaking! I adore coffee. But I’m now enjoying my hot tea habit, and feeling so much better, and I still treat myself to the occasional cup of coffee. It’s not that coffee caused my anxiety, but it did make my symptoms worse.

I’m exercising several times a week. I’m running a 10K race in May with a friend, and I can’t tell you how good it is for my struggles with low self-esteem to simply set a fitness goal and work to meet it. When I complete a run (I’m using a 5K to 10K app on my phone for guidance), I feel good about myself, like I was able to make one small, good, tangible choice toward being physically and mentally healthy.

 

5. I take medication. I don’t love being on medication, but I decided years ago that I was going to do whatever it took to be a good, stable wife to David and mom to my children. I feel discouraged knowing I may need to be on medication all my life, even as I’m tremendously grateful for modern medicine and my doctor who helps me be able to function and be emotionally present for my family. Of course I’m still a sinner who sins against my family, but medication makes me so much more stable, so that I don’t take out my struggles on the people I love the most.

Now, the downside of medication is that there are always side effects. For me, the hardest one is a lack of energy. I need medication in order to sleep through the night, but it’s strong, so I have to take it and know that I’ll be able get 7-8 hours of sleep or I’ll feel drugged the next day. This makes evenings pretty inflexible, and if I have to wake up in the night with my kids, I really struggle the following day. I miss being able to stay up late chatting with girl friends or spring out of bed at 5:30 or 6 in the morning with lots of energy.

It’s always a struggle to wake up, like trying to find my way out from under a thick blanket, and I’m still sleepy when I do wake up. I don’t feel as inspired to write or be creative on my medication. I actually wrote my Purposeful Simplicity series a year ago during a break from taking medication, and I’m not sure I could’ve done it otherwise. I suffered afterwards with terrible insomnia and anxiety, but it was so nice to have the energy to just write and write. I loved it. I miss it.

I learn to live with these limitations, but sometimes I ask the Lord, “Why do I have to do this? I’m so thankful for medicine that helps me function, but I miss the energy of the old me. How long, O Lord?” I know that if He doesn’t choose to heal me here on earth, one day I’ll be with Him in heaven and my body and mind will be whole and free. I can’t wait for that day.

In the meantime I am so very grateful He’s given me the resources I need to be stable.

——

Thank you for letting me share all of this with you.

Yes, I’ve had the occasional cursory and unhelpful comments from people, “You should pray more,” “Confess your anxiety to God,” “Cut ____ out of your diet,” “Try _____ natural method,” (which, believe me, I’ve most likely already tried).

But these people are by far the minority. Most everyone I tell says, “Thank you for being willing to share this. I’m sorry.” They ask questions. They listen. They talk to me in a deeper way about some form of suffering or addiction in their lives. They say that they’re relieved to hear I’m just like them because they always thought I had it all together.

If anyone who struggles with depression and anxiety comes to me looking for advice, I tell them what I’ve learned; that the best approach is holistic. We are whole people: body and mind and spirit, and so any healing path has to involve tending to all of these things.

So, yes to counseling and working through your issues (I say that with a caveat because there can be bad counselors/therapists or simply a bad fit for you, and when that happens, please stop seeing them and try someone else).

Yes, to medication.

Yes, to eating well and regular exercise and getting good sleep.

Yes, to trying natural, alternative healing methods, if you’d like.

Yes, to being part of a church community that teaches the gospel and encourages you in truth, a place where you can take off your mask and be real and be known.

Yes, to pouring out your heart to Jesus and confessing your sin and asking Him to use suffering for good in your life.

Yes, to telling your friends that you struggle and finding safe people who will walk with you in a boldly compassionate way.

And, as a wise person once told me, you may try all of those things, and find help, but never find total deliverance, and that is because our world is fallen and we are all stained by sin.

But hear this, friends: We have a Savior who died and was raised again and sits at the right hand of God. He is King over all, and so if we’ve put our trust in Him, we have nothing to fear from any kind of illness — mental or otherwise. Our King will come back for us and He’ll wipe away our tears and give us new bodies and minds, and we’ll live worshiping Him forever.

One day we won’t even remember what depression and anxiety feel like.

There will just be joy.



life with anxiety and depression, part 1.

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Hi there! After telling you about my recent struggles with anxiety and panic attacks here, and receiving feedback from you guys and others, I wanted to talk some more.

I do this, not because its easy for me, but because if you are someone who lives with these battles at all, I want you to know that you’re not alone. If you know someone who struggles, I pray that you’ll come alongside them and just be a friend. Please don’t try to fix it, just sit with them and love them and listen. Ask them what is helpful for them in their low moments. Their mental health is their responsibility, not yours, but you can love them where they are.

This is a two-part series. In this first post, I thought it might be helpful to explain how it feels to have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). I think people who aren’t personally acquainted with this disorder think it means simply to worry too much, or for a Christian, to lack faith in God. I think worry and lack of faith in God is a human condition; we all struggle with that at some point because we are broken and sinful.

But what I am speaking about here is something more pervasive; it’s an actual illness. I was diagnosed with clinical depression three years ago (after our return from India); thankfully this is not something I am currently battling, although honestly, it’s come on me suddenly, without warning, in different seasons. So there is a pretty good chance I’m going to face it again at some point.

I’ll attempt to differentiate between the two for you. Everyone has their own unique experience and so I’m by no means an authority on the subject. I can just tell you about me.

For me, depression is a thick cloud that seeps into every area of my life. It’s lack of energy. It’s a desire to sleep or sometimes to watch lots of TV in order to escape the darkness. It’s feeling a deep despair about both the right now and the future. Sometime, at its worst, it’s not wanting to live any more. The thing that saddens me most about depression is that I can choose to look around and believe in God’s goodness and I can keep my thankful list, but all the joy has seeped out of my life.

Anxiety is different than depression. I feel it as a sharp prickling fear around the edges of my consciousness. For me it involves physical symptoms such as an upset stomach and a pounding heart and shaking all over. It’s obsessing over something small and being unable to stop, until the obsession switches to something else. I know it’s irrational, I know it’s not rooted in reality, but I feel trapped inside a body and mind who respond as if the danger is real.

I have social anxiety, which means often I will leave an event or conversation and feel panicked that I said or did the wrong thing. It’s feeling exposed and wanting to hide. It’s feeling terrified about losing my good reputation. It’s feeling alone. It’s living with a low-grade impatience and irritability in life in general, and snapping at my family and having intense mood swings, and then feeling deeply ashamed and hating myself for treating them badly.

For me, depression is despair, and anxiety is feeling worthless. Sometimes it’s wanting to hurt myself to avoid the choking feelings of worthlessness, to have something else to think about. At its very worst, anxiety feels like I don’t deserve to live.

My doctor said what turns the tide from anxiety to Generalized Anxiety Disorder is that while regular anxiety is typically tied to a specific experience or event, GAD is present all the time, even when life is good. Here is the Mayo Clinic list of symptoms if you want to know more.

Panic attacks are a tightness in my chest and suddenly feeling like I can’t breathe, or that I can’t escape. Sometimes I feel nauseated. Waves of panic and worthlessness rise up and wash over me. A panic disorder is struggling repeatedly with panic attacks in situations that don’t warrant those extreme reactions. It’s being caught up in a cycle of fearing those panic attacks, and so wanting to avoid people and situations that trigger them.

I wouldn’t wish these experiences on anyone, they truly are awful. If you’ve ever felt this way, I am very, very sorry. I know how it feels to be at the bottom.

But, I’m here today to tell you that there is so much hope. Even as God has chosen to weave this suffering into my story, He’s brought redemption in it. He has chipped away at the pride I cling to and humbled me, and perhaps best of all, helped me love people in a more compassionate way.

I mentioned before that I used to think healing and growth would involve freedom from anxiety and depression. For some people, it does; especially when a particularly hard season of loss eases. But that is not the path God has chosen for me. I don’t understand it, but I trust Him. I know that He loves me and that He could lift this in a moment if He chose to. But He doesn’t, and so I wait on Him.

On Friday, I’ll give you some of the ways God is helping me live with depression and anxiety.