As parents, we love our children. We revel in their giggles, rejoice in their accomplishments (“Yeah! The big-boy potty!”), and willingly sacrifice precious hours of shut-eye to tend to their most basic needs (“Good night, Sweetie. What’s that? Thirty cupcakes for Teacher Appreciation Day tomorrow!?”). And yet, parenting children with a history of abuse, neglect, and trauma, parenthood often means other, darker realities as well: isolation, embarrassment, worry, and never-ending self-doubt.
Well-meaning friends and family observe the chaos and try to help, slipping copies of Love and Logic and gently chiding your kiddos to stop climbing the walls, teasing the dog, or hiding turkey under the bed. They press for revealing details about your child’s history and first family, while you attend family functions on pins and needles, just waiting for the next disaster to erupt. You wish for a place where you can just relax and find kindred spirits who truly understand—who respond to your most embarrassing blunders and incriminating thoughts with the two most compassionate words in the English language: “Me, too!”
It’s time for “Refresh,” a regional (Seattle and Chicago) gathering where foster and adoptive parents can find camaraderie, training, and perspective. Founded by evangelical Christians Andrew & Michele Schneidler and “Confessions of an Adoptive Parent” bloggers Mike and Kristin Berry, this year’s event for Midwestern families was hosted in Wheaton, Illinois on November 11-12, 2016. The next conference, in Seattle, will be March 13, 2017.
Craig and I weren’t sure what to expect when we drove up to the Church of the Resurrection on Friday night and walked in the door as laughter and upbeat music emanated from the auditorium. Display tables for Bethany Adoption Services, New Hope Equine Therapy, and Capable Sensory Products lined the walls. Just outside the sanctuary, baskets of paddles reading “Me, too!” (to hold up in solidarity when a speaker shares an observation or story with which you can closely identify). Inside the auditorium, participants wore buttons that helped them connect with those who had similar stories: “Foster-Adoption,” “Sibling Adoption,” “Special Needs,” “Birth Mother,” “International Adoption.” Most people, like us, wore multiple buttons. In no time, we were chatting with new friends about daycare vs. in-home care, and sharing how we bonded with our kids using “love banks” that enabled them to communicate the amount and type of affection they most needed from us. No one pulled away or changed the subject when we talked about the harder stuff, the frustrations and worries. They knew. They had been there.
As Catholics, we had wondered if we’d be welcome—having spent my first thirty years in the evangelical community, I was sensitive to the smiling anti-Catholic undercurrent I sometimes encountered. But to my great relief, we were met with open arms – by their own admission, these parents had known rejection and isolation because of their children’s behaviors, and they were determined to include everyone. When I gave the Schneidlers and Berrys a copy of my book Advent with St. Teresa of Calcutta, they responded with genuine warmth. And I was delighted to see Henri Nouwen’s quote displayed prominently on the screen in one of the talks:
Compassion is not a bending toward the underprivileged from a privileged position, it is not a reaching out from on high to those who are less fortunate below; it is not a gesture of sympathy or pity …. On the contrary, compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most cute and building a home there.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. This particular event was dedicated to a cause close to the heart of all Christians who are truly pro-life: supporting families who have said “Yes” to journeying alongside children who have been traumatized by abuse and neglect, and trying to make a difference in their young lives. Not all our stories have a neat-and-tidy, happy ending – one speaker spoke eloquently about what it’s like to watch the police take away your oldest son and place him in the juvenile justice system.
I felt the tears begin to surface as I held up my own paddle. “Me, too.”
If you are unable to attend the next conference but would like some “virtual” help, be sure to sign up for Mike and Kristin Berry’s
“Confessions of an Adoptive Parent” mailing list.