The shape of my family isn't anything like I had expected it would be. I was expecting a tidy circle, as most families seem to be. My husband and I tried to grow our family in the natural way, but we could produce no children of our own. We longed for family, though, so we decided to open our hands to embrace those adrift in the foster system, unmoored from their own family circles.
It is a good thing that I have always loved strays.
The foster care experience has been both hard and surprisingly beautiful. There is something uniquely fulfilling about expanding the circle of your family in this way—letting go of the familiar hands of your spouse to admit a stranger and pull them into the fold, then stepping back to allow them space to join you for as long as they need.
In this way, the circle of our family has grown, its dimension an ever-changing variable.
We have only known the experience of family under these uncertain terms.
Even our adoption has felt impermanent at times. The past can never be eradicated, and no matter how tight our bond with our daughter may be, I know that part of her will always wonder and long for another reality, another unbroken family circle that does not include us.
It is a sobering thought.
But it's not enough to keep my hands from squeezing tightly around hers. I want her to know she has a place in the family we have built both with and for her, even if her hands always long for the touch of the ones that held her at birth. She is ours, and sometimes we know we need to hold on loosely.
But we never let go.
Families are made by people turning towards each other. For better or for worse, our hands are bound to those we marry and birth, and within these circles we make, we focus our love and attention. We seldom look past the familiar faces across from us.
But foster care requires you to look beyond the circle of your own family to notice and embrace those who need a place. It is the decision to open your circle to others, to take an unfamiliar hand and hold it tightly and learn its curves and edges until it is familiar as family. It’s taking hold of that hand without knowing how long it will need yours.
It could be three days.
It could be three years.
It could be forever.
(I always hope for forever.)
In a way, though, I guess it always is forever, regardless of the court’s decision. The circle of our family does not shrink after their time with us is through. In my heart, they are all forever my children, and they will forever occupy space there.
We always leave space for them to return when they need us.
The arms in our circle are always open. Perhaps our family isn’t so much a circle as it is a parabola, its curved ends always reaching out, ready to receive whatever blessings might come.
I inadvertently gave my most encouraging piece of advice about coming out to my gay brother when he was still very, very closeted.
I'd always had an inkling that my younger brother might be gay, but at this point in his life (his senior year of high school), that’s all it was—an inkling. He wouldn’t come out for another five years. But high school is always a challenging season, particularly for those who dare to be different.
And dare my brother did.
He loved the stage. He acted in plays and musicals. He sang in choir. He took dance lessons. (He’s amazing—he does it all professionally now.) He was drum major. He played the flute and the piccolo. He was not afraid to make nonconformist fashion choices. He drew, painted, sculpted. He wanted so desperately to express himself authentically in the best way he knew: performance.
These things made him a target.
He had a girlfriend, sure. But that too was performance, and it wasn’t enough to silence the cruelty of those who suspected and weaponized the truth against him.
He played the lead role in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat during his senior year, and he threw himself into the show. The musical is based on the Bible story: Joseph’s father gives him a beautiful, multicolored coat that makes his brothers so jealous that they plot to kill him, but when a chance to sell him as a slave arises instead, they take it. Long story short, Joseph overcomes many obstacles and ends up winning Pharaoh’s favor.
My brother loved this role. He is a performer, after all. But in the rehearsals leading up to the show, I could see that he was performing through a haze of pain. Kids were being downright mean to him.
I wanted to do...something.
So I made him a present.
It was small, but it was something. It was the only bit of encouragement I felt I could offer him.
It was a piece of word art—rainbow cutouts in the shape of Joseph’s coat that I had carefully cut by hand, a relic from a time before Cricut machines. It said, Wear it anyway.
Twelve years later, he still has it—it's hanging in his office.
Wear it anyway.
It’s good advice, really. There’s some universal truth there.
But I did not know how true that mantra would actually turn out to be for him.
When I made him that sign, I was thinking so small. My aim was to encourage him to take pride in his talents in spite of the opinions of others—haters gonna hate, after all. But, as is always the case with universal truth, the sentiment is bigger than I imagined, and it encompasses so much more than just talent.
Wear it anyway is a battle cry.
It’s a roaring declaration of pride.
Now that he’s out, I understand why my brother kept that sign.
That rainbow coat has taken on an even greater significance for him, and I am proud to stand behind him, holding it up and sliding it over his shoulders and encouraging him to Wear it anyway.
Pride is all about owning your personal truth. It’s about radical self-acceptance and love. There’s a takeaway for all of us, really, this celebratory, radical acceptance. It’s religious, almost, a reminder of Christ’s grace.
Be you, brother. In all your flaming glory.
Happy Pride Month.
Adopting you was on my vision board.
I don’t remember exactly when I made that vision board, but it was sometime between the moment the social worker dropped you off at our house and that beautiful court hearing that bound us together. The moment I set eyes on you, I fell in love, quickly and completely. I felt bound to you, even though your stay was only meant to be a temporary one.
Adopting you, officially becoming your mom, was a dream of mine.
It feels like you have always been with me, so it is strange to look back on that and recall a time when you were in foster care, when you were mine only in my heart and my hopes, when a seemingly insurmountable mountain of paperwork and red tape and legal fees and court proceedings stood in the way of us being a family.
In the beginning, though, taking you in was a bit like finding a stray kitten.
You were small and warm and snuggly, with arresting blue-green eyes. I wanted to hold you, to scoop you into my lap and stroke your hair and run my finger down the slope of your perfect nose. I wanted to claim you as family immediately.
But you had other ideas.
I grew up on an old country acreage where stray cats were common. We had some regulars that were always around, but it was always exciting when new ones appeared, even if they were only drawn by the promise of a consistent food supply. We welcomed these skittish transients with wide, enthusiastic arms, with every intention of making them part of our family.
But stray cats will bolt if you get too near, regardless of how much Meow Mix you pour into the bowl.
Anyone who has ever tamed a cat knows how much effort it requires. It takes diligence and patience and care and time to build trust with them. The trick is to prove through consistent care that you mean no harm, no ill will, that your intentions are indeed as good as they appear, that all you want to do is snuggle them and love them.
Just like a cat, you were terrified and skittish those first few weeks with us. You ran out of the room. You hid in corners. You screeched. You scratched. You hissed. You screamed. You were cautious, wary, suspicious. You tolerated my affections only long enough to accept food or toys.
We had to prove to you that we meant no harm, no ill will, that our intentions were indeed loving, even if the thought of returning that love terrified you.
I wanted this, to prove my love for you. I began to think of you as mine. I began to hope for it, wish for it, dream about it.
That’s when I put it on my vision board: “A family built by foster care,” it says. “Finalizing the adoption.”
I hung it on the wall.
(It’s still there.)
But there was such a long way to go.
Part of taming a cat is handling it, and with you, it was no different. Thank goodness you were tiny—I could pick you up with ease. And I did, as often as I could. I would snatch you into my arms, and even though you thrashed in protest, I held on to you until you gave in, until your tiny body melted into my arms and you finally let me truly hold you.
This is how I tamed you, wild one, with snuggle sessions that you fought at first but eventually grew to love as much as I do.
You are still so very catlike, darling daughter, even without the cat-ear headbands that are your favorite wardrobe staple. You love to sleep. You want affection only on your own terms. You are fiercely independent (which I both admire and despise in ways that only a true parent can). You are a world-class snuggler. You love to bask in patches of warmth and sunshine. You hate taking baths. You’re quick to turn up your nose. You’re playful. You’re distracted by sparkles and entertained by toys. You have a wild heart.
But you have allowed yourself to be tamed, and you have finally accepted your place in my arms.