Energy in, energy out

I go in waves of reading, you guys do that? I’ll read every day for hours on end for a few weeks and then I’ll not read a page for the next few weeks. I’m currently in a reading mood-something about winter does that to me. We keep our house a bit on the chilly side just so I can have a cup of coffee constantly in hand and a blanket (or 2) constantly wrapped around me.

I just finished Rob Bell’s, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. My mom-in-law graciously lent it to me whilst I was out with bootfoot. Once I was freed from my boot prison I went on quite the dry spell of reading (that’s what 9 weeks of heavy reading/TV watching will do to a person) so just got around to reading it the last few days. Last night I read this and have been percolating on it since,

We don’t transform our shadow side by denial but by entering into it, embracing it, facing it, and naming it because we believe God is with us and for us.

When we do this-name our fears and sins and failures and own up to them, describing them as clearly as we are able-we pass through them into the new life on the other side. We have faced the worst about ourselves and we have survived, making us strong in the only sense that actually matters. This is why resurrection is so central to the Jesus story: he faces the worst that can happen to a person, and comes out the other side alive in a new way. It is not a false strength we gain a posing and posturing and pretending, but a quiet, humble, grounded strength that has done the hard work of facing our most troubling inner torments and then watching them be transformed into sources of vitality and life.

Do you guys love that as much as I do?

When I look back on the last couple years of my life, years where I’ve been really trying to do the hard work-to face that which scares me the most about myself I realize it’s been both the worst few years (it was so much easier, on the surface anyway, when I was in denial) of my life but also the very best. Not only have my close relationships gotten stronger, more vibrant and beautiful but so have I. And it isn’t because I’ve scrubbed myself clean and come out on the other side smelling like roses-it’s because I’ve come on the other side battered and bruised with the realization that I am still utterly and completely loved.

Before-back when I was in complete denial about my shadow side-I tried so many different ways of earning love. Some didn’t hurt me or anyone else, some really hurt me or other people I love. I was floundering for an easier way to come to terms with grace. We all do this, right? When we aren’t convinced of how much we love we go over the top in trying to earn love, perhaps that’s just me.

Of course this showed itself in a myriad of ways but I was thinking this morning about the ways my denial affected my parenting specifically. I believe very much in the energy we put out into the world. I think for a long time the energy I was putting out reflected my inner turmoil. I would be telling my kids one thing, “Do the right thing, be honest, no lying, you are wholly and completely loved” but my energy was saying, “Lie if you’re scared of the truth, ehhhh I’m not convinced a person can be completely loved when all the shit is out there.”

Of all my kids Tariku was the best at projecting back to me exactly what I was putting out into the world. Perhaps that’s why for a very long time I didn’t fully attach to him. Who was this kid skeptical of my love, constantly lying and totally ill equipped for accepting love? Oh right, that kid is me. I am he. How terribly frustrating it can be to parent a child that exhibits the same behaviors and attitudes you dislike about yourself, right?

I’m sure you see where this is going. As I continue every. single. day to own my shit and walk through it, Tariku is mirroring that as well. The lying has all but stopped, he actually let me hold his hand for half a movie the other day. When I look at him to tell him I love him he looks back and I can tell more and more of him each day is taking it in-allowing it to settle into the parts of his heart darkened by the pain, loss and heartache he’s had in the past.

I think as parents we owe it to our kids to transform our shadow sides, don’t you? I think if we don’t we run the risk of our kids being so scared of their shadow sides they’ll do anything to keep it hidden. The truth is I’m not at all scared of my kids’s shadow sides. The truth is, they are young enough I see most of it. But I want them to feel free to discover it on their own and then talk it through with me. Then maybe when I tell them I love them or that God loves them they’ll know that I mean all of them-even the parts of them that hate me sometimes. 😉

I guess my goal for the new year is going to be that-to keep discovering that which scares me about myself and to step forward in faith-knowing I am God’s beloved. And to maybe take that leap of faith to share with my children all the ways in which I have failed so they know it’s a completely human and acceptable experience. I think they’re worth it, I think I am too.


3 years

3 years ago Tomas and Binyam touched Iowa soil for the first time.

3 years ago I wrote this about being home.

3 years ago this was indicative of how Tomas felt about me.

3 years ago we would find Binyam awake, looking out a crack in the doorway hours after we put him to bed. So scared that something would change while he was sleeping, he remained vigilant until I figured out I had to sit by his bedside until he fell asleep.

3 years ago we didn’t have air conditioning in our house (yikes!)

3 years ago the kids looked like this.

So hard to believe it’s been only 3 years since bringing “The Birhanu brothers” home. I genuinely can’t picture my life without either of them and so to believe I have spent more time as a mom without them than with is kind of jarring to my senses.

We’ve come a long way from the time that Tomas wouldn’t look at me, let alone hold my hand. Most nights he can be found making a beeline for me to hug and kiss goodnight and forgetting to do the same for Zach. Binyam barely blinked the first few weeks home he was so over stimulated. He didn’t talk, he didn’t smile (much) he drooled constantly. Looking back, I’ve never actually seen a child exhibit fear in such a profound way at such a young age. Today he’s our giggle monster who falls asleep the second his head hits the pillow.

The first time I saw those two little boys I knew they were going to be ours. I knew they were adorable, I knew their social reports made them sound like perfect little angels. I knew of Binyam’s club feet and Tomas’s older age. I knew the bare minimum and yet, I knew they were my sons.

I had no idea Tomas was called “little mayor” in Ethiopia and that his ability to win over adults in split seconds would negatively affect our bonding. I had no idea Tomas would struggle so much with his working memory, forgetting details so easily-making it harder for him in school and any social setting that would require him to remember to bring things. 🙂

I had no idea Binyam would shut down when he felt attacked to the point of screaming and drooling for an hour at a time. I had no idea he would climb so far into himself that no one could get to him for hours or days. I had no idea that this would affect his schooling and his ability to maintain relationships.

But I also had no idea that Tomas would teach me all I ever needed to know about joy. I had no idea that when I heard Tomas laugh with absolute abandon for the first time that the sound would settle somewhere in my heart to be accessed in really tough moments. I had no idea that one day he would be the kid I turned to when I needed someone to tell me a story that would make me both laugh and cry. I had no idea one day he would hug me, without prompting, and I would feel more loved than I ever have in my whole life.

I had no idea that Binyam would one day look at me with his big eyes after getting discouraged and say things like, “I did it, mommy! I took deep breaths and I didn’t get angry like you said!” I had no idea that mothering Binyam would unleash a mama bear in me that had yet to be discovered. That when I didn’t think he was getting the help or attention he needed that I would unceasingly call every person I knew to get him an appointment with someone I knew could help. I had no idea when he gave me a kiss with those beautiful lips (snot included!) of his that I would know for certain all good and perfect things come to those who wait.

These last 3 years haven’t always been easy. There have been days when I wanted to give up. Days I wanted to start again. There have been many unanswered prayers, but many more answered even though I never thought to ask.

What I know for sure? Regardless of the fact that we knew nothing about these boys before we begged to adopt them, they have been two of life’s greatest blessings for me. Proof that we don’t always need to know every possible outcome of every possible equation to know fully what we are supposed to do. To me, Tomas and Binyam are proof of God’s grace to a gal like me, because surely no unworthy soul would ever be given two remarkable boys like them.



Today he argued with me about mustard. The conversation went a little something like this:

Tariku: “Mom, you’re putting mustard on that?!? You don’t like mustard!”

Me: “Yes I do, honey, I’ve always liked mustard.”

Tariku: “No you don’t, you didn’t before, I remember that you didn’t like mustard.”

Me: “Tariku, I promise, I have liked mustard since before you were born.”

Tariku: “No, I’m positive, you didn’t like it before.”

and on and on for MINUTES. Minutes, people.

It’s been like this for about 2 weeks, which is to say the length of time in which the kids have been released into the wild on summer break. And most days I can let it roll off my back but some days he argues with me about my never liking mustard and on those days I want to call for a do over.

Because I get it. All of his disrespect, all of his angst, all of his constant arguing is always with me. Moms. They are an integral part in my Tariku’s story. Not just me, of course, but of his first mama who he reportedly looks and acts just like. When I think of her, I always think of him. Smile for days, bright eyes, playful and funny but mostly serious and determined.

And I have to believe there are times when he is interacting with me but thinking about her. I’m sure our upturned eyes when he says something funny or wise and our creased forehead when he’s on our every last nerve is vaguely similar. I can’t imagine the pain it causes him sometimes to see her in me or to look at me and be scared not because of what I’m saying or doing but because I remind him of her-of loss and heartbreak.

So on other days, days when it’s not about mustard-obviously, I’m sympathetic. I get it. Changing schedules means anything can happen. It’s why since the time he learned English he asks me what we are doing for the day and then if the car goes off course asks a million follow up questions to make sure we are doing exactly what I had said we were doing. Because of the day when he was told they were going one place and then instead went to an orphanage. That’s why he gets effed up when his scheduled gets effed up.

And I. Get. It.

But it’s fekkin exhausting some days. Some days I look at him and I can see in him the battered and tattered soul that must be looking back from my eyes too. Like two people hanging on to a tree in the middle of a windstorm. We want the same things: to be loved by each other, by other people and for God’s sake we want to love ourselves. Maybe one of those happens first, maybe they happen together-who the hell knows. But here we are, on the damn tree again. Clutching hands and searching for eye contact. A nod that we’re in it together but come hell or high water we will end up together too. Perhaps a little worse for wear but together just the same.

Some days, not days in which we argue about mustard-obviously, we do end up quite literally together. He’ll let me snuggle up to him on his bed. He’s never super relaxed, my Tariku, when I’m snuggling him but ever so closely I creep until he lets me throw an arm around him, sometimes even a leg. “I love you, you know that?” He smiles, nods his head. “No, I mean I seriously love you. Like sometimes I clench my jaw so tightly because if I don’t then I’ll squeeze you to death with all of the love I have for you. It’s too big for my body. My whole body can’t take it, so my big jaw takes it for me.” Laughs, nods. “Ok, just so you know, no matter what-it’s true.” And then as I get up to leave and my back is turned.

“I love you mommy, so much.”


So bloody, sweat and tear strained we retreat to our corners. Me thinking about how mind numbingly frustrating loving another human can be sometimes and him thinking about how I stayed. I freaking stayed.

On Teacher Appreciation

When Trysten first went to Kindergarten I didn’t think a whole lot about his teacher or school. I know, I know, shocking. But he was a smart kid with 2 parents who weren’t going to let him fall behind on anything so there wasn’t a huge concern.

Then we brought Tariku home and we started to think more about education. We moved Trysten from his school that, year after year, gets the highest test scores in the district and some of the highest test scores in the state. We moved him because most of his school looked like him, which is fine, but the school didn’t look like us. Our new family now contained a little precious boy of color so an almost all white school wasn’t going to do.

We moved Trysten to quite possibly the most underperforming school in the district. Worried grandparents and community members chided us for the bold move but we knew it was right because Trysten would be fine. Regardless of how the school overall did on standardized tests, Trysten positively excelled.

And then we brought home Tomas and Binyam. There was only one school in our district with full time ESL people on staff and we knew bringing home a first grader we would rely heavily on ESL the first few years, so we switched again. This time to a school that usually ranked towards the bottom on standardized tests. We knew it would be a perfect fit, however, when we first saw there was a large minority population at the school and then that a really great family friend-Mrs.Meinert- would be Tariku’s Kindergarten teacher.

Pretty soon after bringing Tomas and Binyam home we could tell they might need a little more attention in school. Tomas’s phenomenal teacher proactively worked with Mrs. Meinert to have Tomas come down with her class during reading and math. At the end of the first year Tomas’s teacher, Mrs. Dunlap, showed me his first words he had written and I cried during the whole conference. Watching how much he had grown from August-May was nothing short of a miracle and I knew, though Zach and I encouraged him at home, it had everything to do with the two teachers who loved and nurtured him in his first year.

Binyam started out in preschool with Dailah but we could tell he too needed a little more work. His YMCA preschool teacher arranged a meeting for us at our local AEA. They tested Binyam and agreed he needed an all day preschool the following year at-you guessed it-one of the worst performing schools in the district (but which boasted Binyam’s Uncle Jake as the principal) 🙂 . When Binyam began his (second) year of preschool he had no idea how to spell his name, his speech was very poor and he had 0 fine motor skills. At his first conference his teacher showed us little scraps of paper that Binyam had written, “Binyam” and “Mom”. With tears running down my face I grabbed her hand, “Thank you, thank you so much.”

The last few years for Tomas and Binyam have carried on much the same. A tribe of advocates have surrounded them and fought for them, working alongside us. And though my other 3 don’t need the same degree of help, their teachers have kept them challenged and loved just the same. Watching these teachers (my kids usually have the same teachers as the sibling who went before them) love, nurture and cherish my babes finding their footing as well as my higher level learners has been an enormous blessing.

I have gotten emails from these teachers at 10:00 pm, “Hey what do you think about trying this for x?” I’ve gotten more phone calls during the day than you can possibly imagine (I quite literally just got off of one) from teachers and administrators, “Hey wanted to let you know x is having a great day today! Make sure you praise him/her for doing their best during reading!” Notes in planners talking about the progress on a letter or a sound or a journal entry. I’ve seen these teachers have to switch from this kind of technique to another, back to the first and then-no wait, let’s do it this way-within just a few months.

And always, when I’ve cried asking, “Are they going to be ok? What more can I do?” They’ve looked at me, usually with tears in their eyes and said, “Of course they’ll be ok, your kid is amazing and we’re going to do everything we can because they are worth it.” And I believed them.

One of my best girl friends was talking about one of her babes that struggles in her class. As Ashley talked about the little girl I just started crying. I can’t get over how much our kids are loved by their teachers. These teachers who work so much, get paid so little love. our. kids. Incredible.

I know not all teachers are like this, I know that. But we’ve been so incredibly grateful for the teachers we’ve had.

I think on days like today when I get a completely unprompted call from the kids’s school, “Hey, Binyam’s teacher was thinking about him…” I am humbled beyond anything else that there is so much love surrounding my kids. I am so thankful I never have to go through this parenting thing alone. So thankful for our community who has trained and support teachers, imperfectly I’m sure, that are as amazing as they are.

So to all the teachers. The ones I’m related to, the ones I am friends with and the ones who have prayed and thought about my kids every day for a year-thank you so much. My words fail me at a time like this but I am forever indebted to you!

5 years

I can hardly believe 5 years ago we landed in the Quad Cities for the first time with Tariku as our son.

This picture was captured the moment after we met Tariku for the first time.



As much time as I had spent staring at his picture the months leading up to us flying to Ethiopia, I was shocked by him in the flesh. I couldn’t get over how bright his eyes were-even more than in his pictures-or how small he was. I had no idea that his smell would smell familiar even though I had never been to Ethiopia before, never held a strange 3-year-old and called him son.

When I look at that picture I see so much innocence in all of our faces. As well as the troubling realization that I overplucked my eyebrows. We had no idea how much work was ahead of us to actually feel like a family. It felt so real so immediately I think it blindsided us all when it took a little longer to find our footing. 

But mostly when I think of this day 5 years ago I think of how much I have changed because of Tariku. I knew that I could be an advocate for my child but I had no idea the strength I possessed before him. I knew I had a remarkable capacity to love, but I had no idea that sometimes wasn’t enough for my babe who felt so much loss. I knew from the moment I saw his sweet picture on my computer screen that I would love him for the rest of my life but I had no idea how that very love would open my eyes and tear off my skin in a way that had never been done before.

That day 5 years ago was a new stage of vulnerability for me that I was ill prepared for but has reaped in me a newer, better human. If it weren’t for Tariku, I genuinely don’t think I’d be who I am today. Despite all my flaws, the me now is so much better than the me then.

Today as I meditated I fought back tears the whole time. The feeling of gratitude is so alive on days like today-days that I recognize the magnitude of what happened 5 years ago.

So thankful for that day, and for this day. Because then and now Tariku is my son. My amazing, beautiful son.

*I blogged about our first trip to Ethiopia starting here if you’re interested.


You know how when you are going through the birthing process and you’ve been pushing for 3 hours (no? just me?) and you swear to yourself-and your husband-that you will never, ever, ever be doing this again because it’s the worst kind of pain you’ve ever experienced and then the baby is placed on your belly and you’re all “oh yeah, I’m totally doing this again.”?

Or when you’ve hit the 4th snag in your adoption process, this process that was supposed to take x amount of time is now taking 3x and you swear to yourself-and your husband-that you will never, ever, ever be doing this again because seeing the face of your angel so far from you and not being able to go there is the worst kind of pain you’ve ever experienced. Then you meet that little one and you feel heaven slam into earth and you’re all “oh yeah, I’m definitely doing this again.”?

That space in between, that’s an empty space. You’re drained of your energy, your commitment, your time. It feels like you’ve poured it all into the process and now it’s gone and you’re all, fuuuuudge this sucks. Then you get through it and switch to, “Well I guess it wasn’t that bad.” because now you’re full. Because you’ve completed the process and all of that energy resulted in something and you look back and you forget how empty you once were because now you’re just so full!

I am totally empty these days.

My energy, my love, my time is being poured into Miss A and I am worn. out.

I have friends who have adopted little babies/toddlers and they talk so real about how trauma has affected their peanuts even though they were so small. I adopted only boys over the age of 3 so it seemed not so big a leap to assume the boys remembered/felt their loss (this is not to say I didn’t believe my friends, only to say I knew my boys were feeling it because they could tell me). Then we started taking care of A and anytime she meets with her family she has explosive diarrhea and night terrors for 2 days. 2 days. Her fear, her trauma, her past is so visceral this not yet 2-year-old doesn’t tell me she’s scared verbally but boy is it obvious!

So I pour it on, oh I lay it on thick. “How smart you are saying please and thank you!” “You are so beautiful!” I correct behavior that was learned under the fight or flight mechanism and I look her in the eyes and say comforting words or give a firm redirection. I pretend like I’m super glad she found me in the bathroom when I was hoping for a few minutes alone. Well, I do all that when I’m full-after a date night with Zach or lunch with friends.

When I’m empty I talk less, she looks at me sideways. She’s smart-yes she is. She knows when someone is only going through the motions and so she’s on to me when I’m empty. When I’m empty it exacerbates all of her issues.

And so I’m empty.

It feels so unfair to my kids who get only half the mom they were hoping to get (to be fair, they often fill me up when I need it as well). It feels most unfair to Zach who, yesterday, woke up to me saying, “I’m not going to talk to you right now. Everything is fine, I just can’t right now. I love you, but I can’t talk to you.”

I am in the middle.

A few months ago-I was out of the process. Before foster care we were in such a good rhythm that I had forgotten what it was like. I was so full I was giving energy away for free, man, here’s some of mine-take what you need.

Despite being empty and exhausted and near tears a lot of the day I’m so thankful I’m here. Because it reminds me that everyone is going through something. It reminds me not to pretend like I know the answers when my friends who are empty ask why I’m so full. It reminds me to say, “You’re in the thick of it. Press on, mama, you can do it.” Instead of, “Meditate, pray, have a big glass of wine.” Those things help but they are quick fixes to a long, laborious process.

So if you’re out there, if you’re empty too, just know that we are in the thick of it. Know that I love you, I get it. Press on, we can do it.

Where We’re At

Zach has been gone a lot more than usual lately (sidebar: never before have I felt such admiration for single moms/military wives) which culminated in this past weekend him being gone all weekend. Overall the weekend was good/fine but I could sense those little moments of stress building into a bigger moment of total Tesi breakdown. I tried everything to get rid of it-meditating, praying, drinking-so that when Zach got home he wouldn’t be met with a total bust of a wife. I think I did a decent job but still felt an underlying tension.

Tuesday night Zach works late and it happens to coincide with the night that Dailah has dance and Tomas has piano. My in-laws are so very generous and typically take the kids and me to dinner following the activities. Last night the plan was to meet at a restaurant that is a little further from home because they are giving some of their proceeds to the Y and who’s going to argue with that? When the kids and I arrived they told us it would be a 15 minute wait, which is not so bad considering we were going to be having 8 people and a high chair.

30 minutes later and we were still waiting. Little A, who is generally a very good almost 2-year-old, was being completely crazy. I knew she was hungry and tired but there was just nothing I could do in the small and crowded restaurant (and look it was beginning to snow again!). When we were finally seated-close to 45 minutes later-she had hit her wits end. The other 5 were as good as possible for also being overly hungry and tired but there were little spurts of mothering that had to be done with them as well. Little A decided she’d like to have a few very loud, very public tantrums. During one super special time I had to take her outside I was holding her little head in both my hands trying to get her to breathe and look at me. I noticed a couple come in with their teenage son and I remember thinking to myself, “I hope this looks nurturing and not threatening.” As soon as I could get her to look at me she calmed down and we were able to go back inside. I saw that couple immediately-the woman gave me one of those, “You got this, honey, it’s ok” looks and I almost started to cry.

Towards the end of the meal my father-in-law asked for the check and the waiter told me that nice couple had bought the whole meal.

It’s hard to put into words what that felt like. Because I’ve always had a genuine knack for exaggeration I will tell you it felt a little like I was drowning and that couple submerged their arms to recover me. Obviously my father-in-law was going to be equally generous and pay for it so it wasn’t about the money-it was about the act. When I sent the kids over to shake their hands and introduce themselves the man kept saying, “I’m not sure what you’re talking about but boy aren’t these kids lovely!”

I got in my car and just cried. It felt like grace, if grace were to put on a few pairs of skin and walk around.

The last few weeks with Little A have been eye opening. The kids we thought were on solid footing within the family have found themselves feeling completely unearthed. Zach and I feel a little like two ships passing in the night. Though we still have a knack for communicating openly and honestly it feels like this beautiful, sweet 22 month-er has wedged herself in between us as well (sometimes physically as she sleeps in our room) and that’s probably been the hardest of all for me, honestly.

Today a friend was at the house showing me pictures from her trip to Antarctica (beautiful!) and she asked if it was a bad time-as the kids were louder and crazier than normal. I found myself saying, “No, seriously, please don’t go.” I don’t remember the last time I felt so overwhelmed. Clearly neither did she, as soon as she left she sent me a text, “You and Zach need to go out. You want me Thursday or Friday?”


This Sunday our pastor talked about the possibility that sometimes people are prone to not being able to accept grace fully. That even though they might know they are deeply loved by God they might not know it enough and so, consciously or subconsciously, they find themselves still trying to earn that grace.

Well shit I think he’s talking about me.

I know I’m beloved by God (I have the tattoo to prove it!) but I do think deep down I don’t totally understand how the whole grace thing works.

Until it shows up in the form of a paid-for meal or an unsolicited offer to babysit 6 children.


Super thankful I don’t have to have it all right or all figured out to have grace that defies understanding. More thankful I don’t have to do anything to deserve it, because right now I feel like total garbage with regards to deserving grace.

And yet there it was and is. Phew.