Moving Forward: An Adoptive Mom Reflects On Her Empty Nest

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My phone says 2:24 a.m. I woke up hungry two hours ago. Quietly devoured half the cantaloupe I bought at the farmer’s market yesterday. Read a bunch of my old blog posts. Cried the ugly cry. Now I have a hangover. A cantaloupe and vulnerability hangover. Why did I write all of that stuff for the world to see?

I’ve been meaning to come back here for years. Yes, I did show up a couple of times in the past 24 months— four, to be exact.

“What happened?” A well-meaning reader recently asked. “Why did you stop writing? It must have been something significant.”

I couldn’t answer at the time. I didn’t have the courage to say the words. But I’ve been thinking about it lately. Why can’t I write for my own blog? Why do I avoid it like nine-year-old boys avoid toothbrushes? Why is this so hard?

It’s hard because I feel embarrassed. Because I feel raw. Because I wore my heart on the outside of me for years and one day it broke and I didn’t want anyone to see that part. So I hid. That’s the truth of it.

But it’s not like I hid on purpose. I didn’t say to myself, “I’m just going to leave my readers hanging. I’m not going to write anymore.” No. It wasn’t like that. It was more like, “Today I am going to breathe. I am going to try to get out of bed. Try to brush my hair and put on clothes and look like the girl My Honey married a decade ago.” Those things took effort. So much effort some days I couldn’t do much else.

I experienced something similar once before. Months of going through motions I have no recollection of. Years of grieving the death of a dream. Grieving so hard I nearly lost myself in the ocean of silent sorrow. I came around, but the grief haunted relentlessly if I was still or quiet for any length of time. Because of that, what happened more recently felt familiar. But familiarity was no comfort. My breaking point came out of nowhere. I don’t remember exactly when. There was no one event that could be called “the catalyst.” I just noticed blood one day. Dried blood and fresh blood oozing from the heart that used to beat so beautifully on my sleeve. I felt protective of it. I couldn’t take any more risks with an organ so raw. It needed time to heal, restore, renew. I didn’t dare write one word. Not one.

After all I’d shared about myself, My Honey, and our precious “Boys of Summer,” I didn’t want anyone to know how hard it really was to become a family. I didn’t want readers who fell in love with my boys when they were sweet and kind and fun and loved me, to see them in any other light.

Oh, there were hints in blogs along the way. The few I posted between 2017 and 2019 were a glimpse into a world where none of us felt comfortable, a world where My Honey and I often sat in our car in the driveway after our Monday Date Night, dreading to go inside the house. Sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes we turned around and drove to the park. We sat on a hard green bench talking about what went so terribly wrong and fighting one another with our words because we couldn’t agree on how to fix it. We felt held hostage by the strangers in our home who looked like the boys we loved and rescued, but who acted like people who hated our guts and only wanted to escape the life we created just for them.

I know it’s crazy, but I felt ashamed that we weren’t doing a good job as parents. (If we were, our kids would love and respect us and follow the rules we live by, right?) If you parent teens, I know you are laughing right now. Even if you birthed them, they don’t always like you or choose to live the way you feel is best. I KNOW this in my head. But after everything everyone did for us, to help us adopt our boys and have a spacious home in which to “live, laugh, love” as the words above our mantle said, I felt ashamed and afraid to let the world see how badly we were failing at “living, laughing, and loving.” I couldn’t see past the pain of the present to give anyone hope in our future as a family. I didn’t want to disappoint, but I couldn’t control the outcome. I couldn’t control anything. My dream world crumbled and I was left with an empty nest, a broken spirit and a marriage in need of repair. Parenting is not for the faint of heart.

Deep grieving that finally led to breakthrough began last August. I remember the season well. My Honey was called to preach in a new district. Circumstances forced us to move from the house God gave us when we adopted our boys. Each room had been packed and emptied. Everyone gone. I stayed behind to paint.

Agreeable Gray. I will forever remember the color of Sherwin Williams’ most popular neutral. Day after day I trimmed and rolled my way through our hollow home. Each room holding stories and memories, joy and pain and secrets only families know. Each room a museum in my mind. I knew where every piece of furniture should be, every picture, every book and knick-knack and treasure. But it was all gone. There was only my ladder, my brush and roller and the tray of gray paint I dragged along the floor on an old sheet.

I love painting. Love the system, the challenges, the transformation—as fresh, clean color covers all the smudges and stains of daily life. I started in one of the boys’ rooms. Just a smallish cube with a closet. It should not have been hard. But it was. Excruciating to be exact. I was alone with all the memories made within those walls. Thankful to be alone as sorrow surfaced and escaped in noisy wails.

 I painted over each memory. Neutralized them all with Agreeable Gray. How many times had I quietly entered this room late at night to pray mama prayers over the sleeping teen on the bed in the corner? How many times had I carefully cleaned up the aftermath of his rage? I’ll never forget the night this room looked like a war zone with broken glass, bloody footprints and an explosion of belongings that took days to repair and reorganize.

As my paint roller glides over the walls, my brain replays the reels of footage stored somewhere inside. Where did things go wrong, Lord? How did we go from back scratches and prayers, laughter and “I love you’s” to satanic symbols and silence and a closed door that couldn’t prevent hatred from seeping underneath and permeating our entire household?

My brain hurts with the memories of those days and nights that blur together in a cocktail of absolute emotional chaos. I shift gears. Try to refocus. Try to find the “happy memories” file. It feels so thin compared to the others. But they are there. The bike rides, camping trips and our Friday “Family Christian Movie Nights.” The happy chatter of Ukrainian voices playing board games or unwrapping Christmas presents. The sparkling eyes when speaking of a certain girl who is now my precious daughter-in-law and the mother of our two beautiful grandbabies.

It all went too fast, Lord. I couldn’t find my feet as a mom before they were gone. Now I’m “Ouma” to a toddler with a contagious smile and a strawberry-haired girl with blue, blue eyes. Help me to get it right. To love them all well. To live in what is “now” and learn from what was “then.”

I dragged my ladder from room to room. Conversations seeped from the walls. My mind heard them all as I rolled gallon after gallon of Agreeable Gray.

  • In our home school room—the standoff between me and two newly landed foreigners about the importance of enunciating correctly so their English could be understood by the locals. “But I’m Ukrainian. I will always speak like a Ukrainian. You can’t make me speak like an American!”
  • In the kitchen—Boy: “If I drop this glass on the floor and break it, will you ever be able to fix it?”

Me: “Not really.”

Boy: “Exactly. And that is why saying ‘sorry’ doesn’t work. It doesn’t fix anything. Those are just words.”

  • In My Honey’s office—My Honey to two bright-eyed boys: “I’m giving you these i-phones, but you need to know how dangerous they are. They can be used for good, and they can be used for bad. It’s my job to protect you from the bad as much as I can. So, these phones come with rules. With a contract that you will need to sign if you agree to the rules…”
  • In the living room—Me with a pounding heart to a boy and a girl lying on the sofa with a blanket over them: “Please sit up. Put your hands above the blanket. I’m not trying to be awkward, but this is not appropriate.”

Boy in response, “This is why we go to our friends’ houses instead of inviting them here. You make everything awkward with your stupid “rules.” ‘No girls in the bedroom. No blankets. No this. No that.”

  • In the master bedroom—My Honey in an angry whisper from his side of our queen sized bed: “I don’t know how much more stress I can take. Something has to change or I am going to end up in the hospital. (He did. Cardiac ablation.)
  • In our bathroom—Me to God, “Do something! My family is falling apart and I can’t fix it!”

By the time I reached the final bedroom with my last gallon of paint, I’d exhausted my tears. I could only smile to myself as I erased a misspelled song title “Young, Dum and Broke” from the wall behind the spot where my tall boy’s bed used to be. He moved out the year before we did, when I was away on a speaking engagement. Went to spend the night with a friend and never came home. He took nothing with him. I left his room as he left it, always hoping he’d move back again. He never did. It was the last room I packed. The closet jammed full of clothes, shoes of several sizes, RC cars, tools and art supplies in a jumbled floor-to-ceiling mess. I saved a tote with his yearbook, sketchpads, photo albums and a few things I thought he might want someday. Everything else went to the curb.

As Agreeable Gray covered his attempt to chalk a wall portrait of the girl who broke his heart in high school, I prayed for him. Too grown for his own good. Flown too soon. Doing his thing in this hostile world. God, show my boy how much You love him. Pierce that independent façade and heal his heart. Let him know he always has a home and two parents who love him very, very much.

I’m done now. Done with living in those memories. Done beating myself up for whatever I did that seemed so wrong to them at the time. Done hiding from the world because my family wasn’t perfect. And done blogging about it all. I’m sure there will be a book one day. In the meantime, I’m choosing to live in the present. Enjoy my grandbabies. Love on my scattered family as best I can and in whatever ways I’m permitted. And allow Jesus to continue healing me as I refocus on ministry.

You will still be able to find me here. And on my @samedressdifferentday Facebook page. And hopefully soon on YouTube, if I can ever get that vlog thing figured out. Thank you, dear readers, friends and supporters of our family for these past 6 years. Thank you for your financial contributions toward our adoption. Thank you for your prayers. We could NOT have done this without you. And believe it or not, My Honey and I have both said we’d do it all again. Perhaps differently. Perhaps with fewer expectations (for them and us), and much more grace and flexibility. But we would do it. Because it’s what Jesus called us all to do. Love the unlovable. Do good to those who use us. Care for the orphans and widows. Somehow in the doing of that, we become more like Him and less like this self-centered world. And that’s what I want more than anything—to be like Jesus. Don’t you?

Unashamed

“Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then will I be blameless, innocent of great transgression. Psalm 19:13-14”

That scripture was written by my own hand in my journal. The year was 2007, the year my upside-down life turned inside-out. That was the year the festering boil that was my marriage to a crack-addicted spouse burst and all that internal pain I’d kept bottled up for years oozed out for the world to see. That was the year God desperately sought to rescue me from myself as my own neediness nearly cost me my future.

Last week I went off the grid to work on some of the last chapters in this memoir that has been somewhat like birthing a child – both painful and joyous. I spent the time at my friend Nancy’s house, where she graciously allowed me to keep ungodly hours, typing away on my manuscript as I sat at her table wearing the same comfy sweats night after day. I won’t tell you how many times I didn’t shower, but by Thursday, sweet Nancy was sitting slightly further away when she chatted to me than she had earlier in the week. I thought my husband was being so gracious when he offered to “let me go away so I could write without distraction,” but I wonder if he was secretly saving himself from having to live with me while I was in “writer’s mode.”

It was a tough, yet productive week. I plowed through the events leading up to the ultimate disintegration of my marriage. Those were definitely some painful memories. But the thing that brought me the most distress was recognizing how clearly God spoke to me and how blindly I went in the opposite direction during the months immediately following my divorce. I was almost too afraid to write about it for fear of what people will think of me.

God sought to rein me in so many different ways. One was through a sermon I heard when I visited a distant church one weekend. Here are some of the notes I took in my journal:

  • Everything has its effect. Our own mistakes are the first source of wisdom.
  • “Failure is failure only if we fail to learn” (John Maxwell)
  • Learn from the mistakes (life experiences) of others. Who are the ‘wise’ people in your life? Listen to them.
  • Are you ready to humble your heart enough to trust God?

 As I recently read the thoughts, prayers, and events surrounding those sermon notes in my 2007 journal, I could almost see the pull between who God was calling me to be and the voice of my own selfish desires. Here’s a paragraph from Chapter 13 of my manuscript:

“I honestly thought I was humble and ready to trust God. But early on in life I had developed a dangerous pattern of going from relationship to relationship without any space between. My marriage was simply part of that pattern. Now that it was ended, I defaulted to my faulty wiring, which was a result of deep insecurity and childhood wounding. I was desperately in need of time to heal.”

I did not give myself that much-needed time. Jumping from the proverbial frying pan into the fire, I got burned and hurt on top of the hurt I was already going through. The enemy knew my vulnerabilities and prepared a perfect snare for my wounded heart. I fell right for it.

As I sat at Nancy’s table this week, reading my personal journal from seven years ago, I felt so ashamed that I had missed God’s warnings to me. He really was being the loving heavenly Father He says He is. But I wasn’t allowing Him to be. I was like that headstrong teenaged daughter who slams her bedroom door in her Dad’s face saying, “Leave me alone! You just wouldn’t understand,” as he tries to warn her about the kinds of boys she’s attracted to. “Forgive me, Lord,” I prayed, as hindsight’s understanding flooded my mind, “For not listening to You. Forgive me for numbing my pain with another relationship and causing myself additional heartache, when all You wanted to do was to help me heal.”

What I want to say to each of us is this: When we run to a person, an addiction, or a numbing behavior to satisfy a longing inside of us, rather than running to the One who created us and truly understands what we need, we are only hurting ourselves further and prolonging our ultimate healing.

 In my 12 Step group, we began Step 1 last October by taking a look at the following addiction cycle:

 The Addiction Cycle:

  1. Pain, distress, boredom
  2. Reaching out to an addictive agent, such as work, food, sex, alcohol, or dependent relationships to salve our pain
  3. Temporary anesthesia
  4. Negative consequences
  5. Shame and guilt, which result in more pain or low self-esteem, starting the cycle all over again

We’re now on Step 6, but we are continually reminded to check where the cycle is showing up in our lives. If we see ourselves anywhere in this cycle, there is hope for us. God longs to be the only God in our lives. He’s the Dad, knocking on the door of our hearts saying, “Open up. I see you. I love you. I really do know what’s best for you. Let me show you. Let me help you. Will you trust me?”

If we can just choose to rely on Him in our times of suffering, whatever they may be, rather than on ourselves or our self-defeating ways of numbing, He will redeem everything we thought was lost. I had to learn that the hard way. Am still learning that…but I AM learning. And He is redeeming. All of those things I thought were lost.messy tulips

When I came home from Nancy’s on Friday evening, I was greeted by a vase of yellow tulips on my table and a loving husband washing dishes in my kitchen. As he embraced me and told me how proud he was of what I was doing and how excited he will be when my book is published and my story begins to help others, I released the fear of “what will people think” and embraced the truth found in Titus 2:11-14, that says it is God’s amazing grace that teaches us to say no to ungodliness and worldly passions.

When we can truly say, “God sees me in my helpless state, hears my deepest heart cries, is able to satisfy my every desire, and His son, my brother, Jesus Christ, is not ashamed of me,” then we can stop the addiction cycles in our lives. Will anyone choose with me to believe that today?

At Nancy's Table

At Nancy’s Table

Titus 2:11-14 (NIV)

11 For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. 12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.