On Being Mother: Spaces for Grace

We finally made it home on March 3rd, 2002, with James and Thomas sound asleep under half-spilled drinks and fries from McDonald’s in the back seat of our car. It was early morning and still dark outside. Before flinging the car doors open wide, my eyes locked with Tom’s in meaning. This was it.

“We’re home! We’re finally home!” His cheerful voice announced what our boys had awaited their entire lives. The four of us bounded toward the house.

One month apart, they had each lived among many other children in a Kharkov orphanage to the age of seven. We’d met them there on February 18th, made our promise to them and stayed in a small flat in the same village so we could spend time with them each day until a tiny Ukrainian court declared what God had placed in our hearts: we belong to each other.

What follows is my story of becoming Mother and grace beyond me.

Already I had prayed the deepest prayers of my entire life as we made our way through dark Ukrainian nights at unlit stations with stops and demands for legal evidence that we were indeed a family. And to be perfectly frank with you I believe a few of those people felt certain that they should consider whether they personally agreed with the court’s determination based purely upon their own (passionately outspoken) view of all Americans as “capitalist pigs.” My arms never stopped covering the boys and my lips never ceased to call for angelic protection. And not the chubby babies with wings; I was asking for archangels, the heavy-weights of God’s own Heaven! No mother is ashamed to do so for her own. We’d made a promise to James and Thomas and I felt the solidarity of that promise was threatened in some of these instances. Everything in me knew that while my womb hadn’t brought about my children’s lives, an astonishing force beyond myself had situated me to become . . .

When a woman’s soul has made a covenant with God to be “Mother,” He begins a transformation; a maternal quality fills all that informs her feminine sensibilities forevermore. Under His majestic grace, I stepped into a deeper me.

But I was still me. And being me means a lot of things – some of which tends toward thinking too far ahead and worrying. I knew about Tom’s approach to the role of father because he has a son from a prior marriage. I’d delighted in observing his relationship with his eldest son, Austin. He was a truly amazing boy who I’ve watched become an even more whole, admirable man, husband and father. The worries I held were more about the unknown.

In this new arena intuition and instinct became pronounced for me. Every opinion offered to us involving my sons’ development was taken under advisement with much appreciation. But the decisions we made came from the mixture of my approach which is based spiritually in prayer, mentally in research, and my new-found Mommy-instincts… along with Tom’s approach, which is responding to a direct, blinding flash of the obvious.

In those first several months we made decisions about educating them, as English would be their second language. My broken (and apparently hilarious) Russian certainly wouldn’t do. God provided an interpreter from Kiev, Natasha, to work with the school and us. The boys had always slept in a large room with many other children, so they were uneasy at night. That’s when my story of the GREAT BIG, strong archangels came in handy, and with Natasha’s help, they learned that these heavenly beings stood guard at every door and window of our house.

There were deeper issues, naturally. No one lives their first formative years in an orphanage culture without some missing pieces. The primal need of the human condition is to belong to someone – a constant. Not having that from the beginning means never being relaxed, never receiving special attention, never trusting any certain person. Our sons had learned that food was scarce and love was to be held in suspicion. That meant behaviors were demonstrated that extended far beyond the scope of educators, counselors, interpreters and parents.

Friend, it went beyond me. I tried to reach just as far as I could. My dominating fear became that they would never be able to form attachments, a sad reality without key issues being addressed. And the implications of that for each of their future selves terrified me. And I was their mother. Surely this responsibility rested solely upon me.

Attachment parenting techniques worked wonders. Both James and Thomas discovered cues indicating the emotions of others through facial expressions and tone of voice. They learned loving provision through having their own clothing and a home. At last they realized that meals were steady and plenty and in between there were Rubbermaid dishes filled with snacks in every room.

I covered everything I could think of to get what they needed inside their hearts. In fact, I covered them. Never let them out of my sight, never allowed myself to be out of their sight. For a time I home-schooled the boys as they continually thought the school was our way of tricking them into going to another orphanage. Gah! Their fears were much deeper than my abilities.

I still remember the day when what had crept up to the surface of my brain finally broke consciousness. Outwardly quiet, my spirit wailed at the truth. It stood right there between God and I. Tom and I are not enough. I am not enough.

Not. Enough.

Those of us who ponder life experience this feeling. Sometimes it’s a mother. Sometimes it isn’t. The perspective I’ve developed over the years is that it carries an underlying assumption that one should be enough for whatever one faces. It implies spiritual scarcity.

The well-worn path of shame beckoned, and because I’m me, my mind accepted the invitation. Just who did I think I was, anyway? Some healer? Some miracle-working saint? But wait, psycho-self, remember Who loves you. Don’t forget The One – The Savior Who knew you before you even knew you existed . . .

My heart stilled. It wasn’t time to push for an answer. Instead, it was time to pull. In observation mode, the coming weeks were a lesson to me I’ll never forget. In fact, it continues to unfold.

Over a year had passed since we’d all come home. At this point both boys were speaking English but when excited they would either stutter or slide into Slavic expression. We drove along the highway from a trip to a nearby town, Thomas and James were telling me a story of a trek their orphanage made to a church. In their region at that time it would have been either Catholic or Orthodox. They’d seen an image of “Christos.” Thomas poked at the center of his palms in each hand, indicating Jesus’ wounds. Then Thomas’ speech slowed, “I asked Him to send a mama and papa to come and get me. Then a couple came and said they were going to come back, but they didn’t. Then you and Papa came.” He turned his face toward the window, now softly crying.

“But Son, we’re yours now and we’re never leaving. You don’t have to cry,” I said.

He faced me and replied, “I know. I’m crying because of how much I love Him.”

I thought my heart was overcome in that moment. Then James said, “And He loves us too! He had His hand on us all along and made us strong and brave, yes Mama?”

Now I was overcome. I verbalized my agreement with James, yet underneath my words was a profound rumbling within. It might have required an archangel to roll the stone of self out of the way, I don’t know. But my dark worries gave way to Light. Since becoming a mother I had stepped into a deeper me; now, I was stepping into a deeper God. A deeper God in Whom my sons had perhaps leaned long before.

What had appeared to me as a frightening cloud of unknowing became a portal of God’s own ways – ways in which He was to form James and Thomas. Ways that indeed went beyond what two loving parents could give. Somewhere along the way I’d forgotten that God’s eternal role in my son’s lives went backward and forward. Much like any mother can do, I’d held on too tight.

It turns out that God uses other people. Tom and I discussed how many times I had been “not quite ready” to expose our sons to closer relationships with others. Sharing time with other families, others in our church and others in our community. Boy Scouts, sports, play dates, Sunday School teachers. In these people and situations my sons saw leaders, camaraderie, service, what families looked like and how they interact, and how others besides Tom and I relate to God; how they pray and love the world around them. After a period of being educated at home they were ready to return to school. Through all of these experiences they learned and learned. Internalized bonds through many types of relationships grew their view of life. As did my expanding, deepening, trusting view of God with children who had belonged to Him way before Tom and I entered their world.

Had we been everything we set out to be as parents, there would be no void area for God’s grace to fill James’ and Thomas’ lives. I’ve really told on myself here but I don’t mind. I’m human. And God is God. So this is what He does for our children.

Years later I would find words that mirrored my ongoing experience. French Philosopher and Christian Mystic Simone Weid wrote:

“Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it. And it is grace itself which makes this void.”

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