My mom’s car was impounded in Omaha this past weekend, and honestly, it was the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time.
We were celebrating the launch of the book So God Made a Mother. I was fortunate to be chosen as a contributor. I’d written about motherhood—adoption, specifically—and I thought, who better to bring as my plus-one for this event than my own mom?
It was a harder choice than you might imagine, though. My mom and I had drifted apart over the past decade, and motherhood was the wedge that had come between us.
She had become a mother with such ridiculous and fortunate ease. My own experience was not so lucky. Infertility was full of unexpected pressures and emotions. I was resentful that my own mother had what I so desperately wanted (four times over), and that I was to her exactly what I wanted for myself but could not have. It was a confusing paradox, one that had left me bitter and angry as I struggled to bear the impossible weight of my grief, a paradox in its own right, for how can you grieve what you’ve never even had?
Impossible or not, my grief was very, very real. It was quiet, private, and dark—suppressed, even—while hers was…well, it wasn’t any of those things. Her grief felt too loud, too public, too exposed. And I didn’t feel like she had the right to grieve my tragedy in that way.
I was angry, but not just with her. She hadn’t caused our infertility, and rationally, I knew that. I was angry with forces beyond my control, with circumstance, with the very Creator of the universe. But I needed someone to blame. My rage was a powder keg—I was loaded for bear with nowhere to shoot.
Mom was the only place I could expel my rage, so I aimed my guns at her.
And she shot back.
Fighting with my mom was like fighting with myself. We’re alike in so many ways, so I knew where to aim to inflict the most damage. I weaponized that knowledge, and I think she did the same.
I became a mother in the midst of that war zone.
Becoming a mother was hard. It was years of white-knuckled foster care, when I was clinging to children that I desperately wanted to call my own, but who only might become mine if the biological parents’ rights were terminated. I learned to love without the guarantee of reciprocity. I learned to make the most of the time I have with the kids in my care, to love them while I have them, because there are no guarantees in foster care.
Foster care is the hardest thing I have ever done.
Eventually, though, I realized that my mom was the reason I was strong enough to do it, and I put down my guns and called a truce.
Thankfully, my mom was open to it.
So this trip to Omaha wasn’t just a celebration of success and motherhood. It was a reunion of sorts.
Mom and I embarked on the five-hour drive with mild trepidation—we hadn’t spent any time alone together without fighting in years. But conversation flowed easily enough, and the drive passed rather quickly. The launch party was lovely, and Mom was my own personal paparazzi, capturing the night with photographs of me exchanging names and signatures and contact information with the other writers. It was such a joyous occasion, and I felt celebrated, not only by the awesome So God Made a Mother team, but by my mom. I was walking on air that night, despite the rain and the cold.
And then, when we woke up the next morning, Mom’s Jeep was gone.
It had been impounded.
Mom was distraught. I was furious. We had to be back in Minnesota for a family funeral on Monday. Tearful pleas from Mom and angry tirades from me did nothing to move the man who had mom’s Jeep. He claimed he could do nothing until Monday, and he would be charging us per day until then.
We were exasperated. We had no choice but to get out that juicer and some sugar and make some lemonade.
At this point, our misfortune went from tragic to hilarious.
We walked from our hotel room to grab some food, and it began to pour rain. Mom was drenched, because she had left her coat inside her car.
We rented a car from a private party that reeked of weed and lacked power locks and windows. The owner apologized for the smell—the previous renter had returned it with three air fresheners hanging from the mirror that had done nothing to mask the skunky-sweet stench—and gave us the option to cancel. The smell was…noticeable. But we were desperate, the car was cheap and readily available, and things were getting way more expensive than we’d initially planned, so we took it anyway.
Because of this inconvenience, I spent an extra 48 hours with my mom.
I don’t think I realized how badly I needed that extra time until we were caught up in it. We laughed so much—about the way the shady impound lot guy refused to give us the actual address of the lot, saying instead, “Look for the orange truck.” (Turns out there are more than a few orange trucks in Omaha. It took us a couple tries to find the place.)
We laughed when the shady impound lot guy refused to give her the Jeep back because she had just purchased it and didn’t have the registration in the glove box—it was still sitting at home on the counter.
We laughed as we waited for my dad to drive 40 miles home from work to take a photograph of the car title, and we giggled like teenagers when mom made the cash-only exchange with the shady impound lot guy, when he claimed he “didn’t have a pen” when she asked him for a receipt (I gladly provided one), when we watched him slouch into the lot, the rhinestones sparkling on the back pockets of his jeans as he walked, to retrieve her Jeep at last.
Like I said, everything was hilariously terrible at this point. We were as close to crying as we were to laughing, and thankfully, the scales tipped in favor of joy.
Our giddiness was compounded by relief as we returned the weedmobile and embarked home in mom’s new Jeep, and the five-hour drive passed quickly and easily, like time spent with an old friend.
It was a bonding experience—that extra time together proved precious, and I was able to ease back into relationship with my mom, to restore what had been lost between us. Laughter is the best medicine, and it proved to be a balm for us. I’m so thankful for those extra 48 hours, even though they were fraught with misfortune, because we were able to overcome what had stood between us for so long.
(Plus, Mom’s insurance reimbursed her for the tow.)
Christmas was pretty complicated at our house this year.
It hasn’t always been that way—at least, not for me. For me, Christmas has always been pure joy. It’s my favorite holiday, and I have nearly four decades of happy Christmas memories, all made of love and connection and celebration, of singalongs and game nights, of delicious cookies and even more delicious anticipation and, best of all, the people I love and care about most.
We always spend Christmas Eve with my parents and siblings, and I was thrilled to have my adopted daughter, current foster daughter, and former foster son joining us. I wanted to give them the same sort of joy and love and connection that I share with my own family. I wanted to do everything I could to give them a good Christmas. I went all out, and so did my family.
And it wasn’t just good. This year, it was great.
It was one for the ages. It was magical, filled with love and laughter and joy, with card games and too many gifts, with hugs and snuggles, with carols sung around the fire and way too much food, and the sweet, sweet comfort drawn from the simple company of those who truly love and accept you.
But that joy proved too sweet for some.
I did not think such a thing was even possible, but it happened when one of my kids broke away from the game we were playing and asked for my car keys, saying he needed to get something. I couldn't imagine what, but I gave him my keys anyway.
He didn't come back inside.
After some time, I followed him out to the car. I assumed that something had set him off, that he’d gotten an upsetting phone call from one of his biological family members. But that was not the case. He was just sitting out there, in the dark, alone. I asked him what was wrong, and he could only shake his head, but we both knew what it was.
It's always the same thing, after all.
He had felt the joyful magic of Christmas, and that was exactly the problem. This joy was a glimpse into the life he’d been denied. He had retreated to my car to escape, to hide from the joy because all that sweetness was just too much.
Like a toothache.
Having these kids with us was beautiful, but any joy they experienced with us was undoubtedly tempered by the knowledge that they were not experiencing it with their biological families. No matter what I did, I would never be able to fill that void for them. I had wanted them to experience pure joy this Christmas, but the best I could give them a diluted version that we’ve learned to call happy/sad.
I wish I had a better word for it, but I don't. Happy/sad is a very real emotion. It's not quite the same as bittersweet. It has the same juxtaposition and contrast of pleasure and pain as bittersweet, but there’s an element of competition and confusion that happy/sad has—an internal war is waging. Sometimes, there’s a third contender, and it’s happy/sad/mad. You don’t know what to feel, what you should feel, but you feel it all, all at once, and it’s overwhelming.
Adoption itself is happy/sad. So is foster care. There’s always that stab of pain, that element of loss. Nearly every holiday and milestone we celebrate with the kids in our cares come with this complicated feeling. We have come to expect this, and we are doing our best to help them endure these emotional tsunamis. I spent an hour crying outside in the cold in my pajamas on Christmas Eve, apologizing through the window of my car for things that I knew were not my fault but felt bad about all the same. When happy/sad struck him, I wanted to help, but the only things I could only offer were my presence, my tears, and my reassurance.
It didn’t feel like enough. (It never does.)
My mom told me that there’s nothing worse than watching your children suffer, and I know now how true this is. Watching my kid experience happy/sad made me feel a version of the same. I did my best, but I couldn’t get him to come back inside. He just wanted to be alone. He asked--begged—me to leave, so, because he asked, I did.
I returned to the house alone, with puffy eyes and shuddering breath and a heavy heart, and when my dad asked me what was wrong, I started to cry again. I felt awful, like I’d been caught inadvertently flaunting my happiness. Dad saw my pain, put on his coat, and went out to talk to him. His efforts were successful, and they returned together and shared a hug.
Happy/sad—that I have a loving biological father, yet he does not.
My foster daughter saw my crumpled, tear-ravaged face, and she opened her arms to me. “It’s okay,” she said. “I get it.” I fell into her arms and cried into her shoulder.
Happy/sad—that she cared about me yet likely felt the same thing he did.
Happy/sad—the feeling is maddening.
This Christmas had been joyful, and my kids did enjoy the holiday—they told me so, all three of them. But there will always be an underlying sadness there that no amount of sweetness will ever soothe. This will likely always be the case when celebrating with children who have endured foster care, and that’s happy/sad for me, too. I love sharing the holiday with them, but I am saddened by the pain and grief that the joy of this holiday evokes.
Family is about finding those who will help us weather the storms of our feelings. Sometimes, you’re born surrounded by them; other times, life brings them to you. Either way, I’ve been blessed by both kinds. I know I’ve experienced my own share of emotional tornadoes, and I’ve been unconditionally sheltered by my family circle as they’ve raged. I’ve had a good, steadfast example, and I believe it is my calling to go and do likewise, to build a shelter around these kids and help them withstand their storms.
It’s a holy calling, even if it’s a happy/sad one.
I wasn’t expecting it, but doing foster care radically changed my views on abortion.