The Big Ugly I Tried to Hide

Two summers ago, we lost our daughters to foster care. We did. Man, that sure stings to write. I’ve written about our experience at length, and I’ve talked about it frequently and every time I have wondered if that sting will ever abate. It hasn’t yet.

There are occurrences in our days that take us by complete surprise. The things we never, ever saw coming. The loss of a parent in the tender stages of our childhood. Or the divorce that knocks the wind out of you. Finding out your spouse has lied to you repeatedly. The cancer diagnosis. The sudden death of your child. We never walk through life planning for the divorce…..or that death…..or betrayal. Those events just come along and leave you gasping for breath.

For us, it was foster care. You see, we don’t fit the profile. Kind of like the shooter who took out 58 precious lives and altered hundreds of others in Las Vegas. In that aftermath, we collectively searched high and low for the signs. The things that came before to warn us of the horror still to come. But after turning over the stones and looking in the corners, we haven’t found it yet. What chills us all to the bone is that he doesn’t seem to fit the profile. Profiles make us feel better, as though we can be on the lookout for tragedy or prevent nightmares. But those constructs are really more a false sense of security than anything else.

In the movies, children in foster care are malnourished, unkempt and kicked around. Their parents are absentee addicts. Their foster parents range from the larger-than-life hero to the follow-up abuser. The movie Annie comes to mind. It’s a hard knock life, after all.

My family doesn’t fit that profile. But the truth is that the families weaving their way through the social services system are just as varied as the people you’ll find in every corner of the globe. There are children who were raised in caring homes and find themselves fallen to rebellion or addiction or the wrong crowd or good old fashioned poor decisions. There are children who were born into the system, and others who were tortured before being rescued by a kind soul who blew the whistle on the neglect they suffered. There are parents who came from the system themselves. There are parents who were raised in mundane middle-class families and have never smoked a cigarette, let alone a joint. There are upper class parents, and parents who are educated. There are foster parents who adore the children in their care and treat them as if they were their own. There are foster parents who hit and rape and exploit. There are foster parents who are neither great nor horrid, sitting firmly in the center of disengaged and involved. The system is filled with social workers who toil endlessly and juggle case after case in a vain attempt to deliver all children to a loving family. There are social workers who checked out years ago. There are some who turn a blind eye when wrongdoing stares them dead in the face. The judges sitting in family court and the cops who act as first responders are just as colorful as the kids, the parents and the social workers. Foster care encompasses every race, religion, socioeconomic status and continent. Try as we might to find a profile that is one-size-fits-all, one simply doesn’t exist.

Still, I didn’t know all of this in June of 2015, when a set of tidy police officers knocked on our door.  While I drove down the street for questioning, I couldn’t shake that feeling of being in a dream. This couldn’t be happening. I was no criminal. Neither was my husband. Our daughters were the same ones we prayed for and received by way of a miracle, despite the biology that said otherwise. We worked hard every day in ordinary jobs, like construction and at our family church. We paid our bills and cleaned our house. We leaned toward ‘protective’ as a parenting style, and never let a day go by without telling our girls that we loved them. Hugs and laughter and singing abound in our home. We aren’t an image of perfection by any means, but still…….how could this be happening?

But it did. For 76 long days, our little girls lived away from us, in the homes of two different women we didn’t know. We experienced both ends of the spectrum, with one who was great and one who should never be a foster parent again. To say that we walked through each nightmarish day longing for our beloved children would be a massive understatement. There isn’t enough space here to express it with clarity. On day 76, after we had sat in family court hearings more times than I ever wished, and we paid hundreds for the hair follicle drug and alcohol tests, and thousands for the private lie detector test that vindicated us entirely, our daughters were released to us in the most ordinary of ways. A quick phone call from our lawyers and it was over.

By then, this ordeal was a big ugly beast in my life, looming large over all the positive elements I had worked to build. In my mind, it overshadowed the nights rocking our babies to sleep with whispered lullabies and sacrificing to pay for their private school education and the bear hugs given from sun up to sun down, day after day. It became a mark on my heart. It felt fruitless to try and convince people that our blip in foster care was not an expose on the state of our family.

One hot and humid day that summer, I found myself standing with my co-workers in a circle. After spending a month working from home, it was time for me to come back to the office. They promised to honor my need for privacy. They cared for our hearts and so much more. It was determined that, in order to lessen the peppering of questions from everyone, a good move would be to share briefly that our daughters were away from our care. Though my heart pounded and my palms filled with sweat at just the thought of such a revelation when it was all still so raw and fresh, I gave way to the urge to be rid of that big ugly. I knew I could fall and be caught by these dear friends. They knew us. I trusted them. My flesh wanted desperately to shield and hide, but my heart knew that revelation brings forth freedom. Standing there in the circle of my peers, I knew that secrecy couldn’t and shouldn’t happen. Everything in my makeup felt that no amount of me defending could ever sway a mind fixed on the lie that says ‘where there is smoke, there’s also fire’…..no matter how untrue that may have been. I would need to step into the flames by owning our story, accepting that this was a chapter in our family book and being completely, totally okay with how it read. So I took that breath I had been holding in for weeks on end as I trudged through the misery of torment, exhaled deeply and let it go. That big ugly floated out into the blinding brightness of freedom and has stayed there ever since. The King of Kings is in the business of taking the biggest, the ugliest, the hardest, the darkest and turning that mourning into JOY.

We ALL have a big ugly. No, no really. All of us. I know because humanity is messy. People are messy and life, while beautiful, will bring us to our knees at some point or another. Your big ugly might be a childhood filled with molestation or beatings. Or maybe, just maybe, you were the abuser. It might be that you grew up in poverty or committed a crime in your past. Maybe you walked away from an abusive marriage or have struggled with a child battling mental illness. It’s possible that you’re like us, still stinging from the knowledge that you once spent time in the social services system and faced down false accusation. No matter what your story, we all want to hold some big ugly in tight privacy. It’s the nature of the human condition to want to conceal.

But the feeling of freedom is so stunning, friends. It breathes life into your bones and restores what was broken. Fill your lungs, exhale deeply and let it go.

 

Hiding no more,
Mande