Every now and then, my family will gather to watch old home videos of my sister’s and my childhood. With three years between us, there are many antics to relive and relish with laughter and fond memories. There is one video in particular where I am doting on my sister, no doubt sure that this baby is my baby.
For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a mother. In middle school, a friend nicknamed me “Mommy Jessi” because I was constantly the mother figure in our group, looking out for others and seeing to their needs. As a teenager, my friends found jobs at local retail stores or restaurants, while I was a preschool teacher’s assistant and summer camp counselor. In college, I studied Early Childhood Education and went on to teach elementary school for six years, determined to change the world, one child at a time. Through much of this time in the classroom, I was single and longing for marriage. Teaching seemed to be a healthy outlet for the maternal longings within me.
When my husband and I met nearly nine years ago, we shared a love for children. I was still teaching school, while he worked in the school district as a health manager. On our first date, we bonded over our shared dream of adoption, and I thought to myself, “This guy is a keeper!” Fast forward nine months, and we were married. Two years later, we found ourselves in the midst of infertility. Negative pregnancy tests were thrown in the trash, along with my hopes for a baby and the life I had imagined for myself. Each month brought devastating disappointment and raw, searing heartache that devoured me, body and soul.
I cried out to God, cursing my broken body and wondering, “Why can’t I do what comes naturally for other women?” The pain of fibroids and endometriosis felt all consuming, and I didn’t know if I would ever know the joy of holding a baby in my arms when month after month, my womb was empty. The shame of entering into a club I’d never wanted to be a part of lurked in the background of nearly every thought and conversation.
In this unexpected season of waiting, my husband and I prayed about what to do with our desire to raise children. As we considered our two empty bedrooms, we knew God was calling us to something beyond ourselves. In His providential sovereignty, He saw fit to bless me with the gift of motherhood in a completely unexpected way—through caring for another woman’s children. The church we were attending at the time hosted an annual conference for foster and adoptive parents, so we attended to learn more, hoping to hear from the Lord about our next steps. The day-long event was like drinking water from a fire hose. We left with information we could never unlearn—namely, that foster care in our nation, our state, and our own town was (and still is) an emergent crisis.
Moments after pulling away from the parking lot, my husband and I both said to one another, “I think we are supposed to pursue foster care.”
It was a moment I’ll never forget—threaded with the holiness of a God who spoke to both of us as individuals yet brought us together as one, as He so sweetly does in marriage.
We began serving on a care team for another foster family, bringing meals and praying for their needs. A little over one year later, we celebrated that we were finally licensed foster parents.
When we opened our home for the first time to three elementary aged siblings, our hearts cracked open. This act of obedience stripped our lives of all creature comforts and brought us to a place of deep dependence on and worship of our Heavenly Father. The time they spent in our home changed our hearts forever. When they left after a whirlwind summer, I knew that if I never birthed a child, I would still be a mother.
My idyllic thoughts about adoption and foster care stemmed from a childhood love of the movie Matilda. As a former elementary school teacher, I was certain that one day, I would be able to find that special student who needed a safe place to call home. And just like Ms. Honey, I would welcome this child with open arms and we would live happily ever after. But things weren’t that simple.
Overwhelmed. Afraid. Lonely. Inadequate. All of these words describe the feelings of a foster mother—especially one who has never parented before. The grief of knowing what children have walked through before entering into foster care is palpable and raw. Unspeakable acts of neglect, abuse, and abandonment become a life defined by trauma and heartache instead of hope, love, and acceptance.
The starry-eyed days of anticipating what it would be like to bring children into our home were short-lived. When our first placement of three siblings walked through our doors, all we could think about was how ill-prepared we were to take on the seemingly insurmountable task of caring for children from hard places. But isn’t that just like God? To give us way more than we can handle when we are sure that we have just what we need to be able to “do a good job?” My husband and I were quite certain our love, and that of our Savior, would be enough for even the deepest of wounds. Yet we had so much to learn.
I wanted to be a Ms. Honey super-mommy, ready to swoop in and save the day. However, the inadequacy of my best efforts to love and care for children from hard places left me feeling sad, alone, and afraid. I assumed my time in the classroom would have prepared me for an easier journey. I thought I would be the one to offer grace and mercy, yet as I stumbled through learning how to parent and care for children in my own home, I felt I needed it just as much, if not more than they did.
As the severe effects of trauma continue to spill out into our home and hearts, I am faced with a question–how do I mother through this? I don’t have what it takes to bind these deep wounds. I cannot erase the years of pain and suffering. My words fall short, and I am left lacking.
But what I do have, I give. Arms to embrace a hurting child. Eyes to see what others have diminished. Feet that pursue even when I’d rather shrink back in self-preservation. Lips to utter gentle words of grace. Ears to listen to the hardest truths and memories I could never fathom.
I am poured out, drained dry, and left spent. I have trouble drinking deep of the Living Water. I know He is all that I need to quench my thirst, but my need is so acute and desperate that I wonder if He will truly satisfy me. My heart breaks again and again as I consider the calling that has cracked me wide open–to mother and care for the children He has entrusted me with, no matter how they came to me.
But this is what I know—a mother is not just a mother through biology. A mother is made through a supernatural force of love that makes the hard choice to enter into heartache in order for a child to know true peace and joy. The Lord permitted me to enter into a sacred calling through a broken system full of broken people that serve broken families. He shattered my idyllic expectations as He brought me to my knees in humble need of His grace. In my utter brokenness, I saw the face of Jesus and found Him where I least expected Him.
Because in the depths of my sorrows and disappointments, I learned to trust the unfailing love of the Father to the fatherless. And in my mothering, I embody the love of a God Who says, “I am always enough.”
The featured image, “Red Maple Leaf in Promise Pages,” is courtesy of Julie Jablonski and is used with her kind permission for Cultivating.
Jessica Mathisen lives just outside of Atlanta, Georgia with her husband and three kids (two through biology and one through adoption). She is a former elementary school teacher and a lover of people. As a writer, speaker, podcaster, and coach, her passion is to communicate God’s love to others through words and relationships. Her most favorite things are hanging with her family, eating chips and salsa, and reading good books. You can learn more about her at www.jessicanmathisen.com, read her latest book, An Overwhelming Hope, listen to her podcast, The Fullness of Joy, and follow her on Instagram.
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