There are a lot of areas in my life where I have relatively low personal standards (e.g. upper body strength, fashion, lawn maintenance, reality television, etc.), but parenting is not one of them.
From the day we first saw two lines on a pregnancy test back in 2000, Anne and I have known what kind of parents we wanted to be. We didn’t want to be good parents. We wanted to be GREAT.
I share this because I want you to understand how high our standards are… so you can fully appreciate how miserably far below them we have fallen over the last few months.
It is one thing to fail at something where you’re not really trying that hard. It is far more indicting to fail spectacularly at something where you are genuinely trying to do your best…
An Engineer’s Guide to Parenting and Adoption
While our family size has changed dramatically over the last 15 years, our commitment to great parenting has not.
And while a passion for parenting might help drive some people into adoption, it almost kept me out of it.
I am an engineer, and I tend to think of the world in terms of limited resources to be carefully managed and budgeted. We only have so much time, so much money, so much energy, etc. Through this lens, life is a complicated equation to be solved and every adoption is rife with potential to disrupt a carefully crafted balance.
While I know that this logic is deeply flawed, these fears feel very real in the middle of the night when you wake up worried about whether this is the “one” that will cause the whole house of cards to collapse.
Is this the tipping point when I no longer have enough? Is this when I have to start limiting how much of myself I can give to each kid? Is this where I have to give up the goal of trying to be a great dad? Or in the worst case scenario, is this where I start failing to even be a good one?
As Anne and I prayerfully considered each adoption, this was one of our primary questions and focus areas. Can we do this without compromising our ability to be the kind of parents we want to be to ALL of our kids?
And what usually started with some very deep and emotional questions about love and attachment often ended with some very practical, functional… almost boring… answers.
We need “systems.”
We recognized this early in our marriage. It only took a few tense exchanges at the mall or the grocery store in those early months for Anne and I to realize that we needed a budget. (In retrospect, it’s possible that I may have “realized” it a little bit earlier than Anne… and that might have contributed to the aforementioned tension.)
Early on in parenting, we identified a similar need for tools and guiding principles to help us stay focused on the important stuff and to help hold everything together. A quick look at our weekend “systems” would illustrate this. Every Friday night is “Jutt Night” where we all go out for dinner and then back home for milkshakes, dancing, and family prayer. Every Saturday night is a date for Anne and me, a chance to connect and regroup. Sunday mornings are for church, and Sunday nights feature our modern take on Sabbath: pizza and a movie on the red blanket in the family room.
I am sure that the above list feels stifling to some of you, but to us… it just feels right. Our weekend traditions are a calendar embodiment of the kind of parents and family we want to be – time together, laughter, prayer, conversation. These are essential to what it means to be a Jutt.
We always valued traditions like Jutt Night, but their importance has only grown in proportion to our family size. They now represent a comforting anchor of calm and connectedness in an increasingly chaotic and disconnected world. These “systems” help insure that we maintain the heart of what it means to be a Jutt even as the literal picture of our family changes.
In a very real way, my ability to concretely picture an extra milkshake on Friday or slice of pizza on Sunday really helped me get comfortable with the idea of adopting more kids. Knowing that some things weren’t going to change helped me deal with the things that might.
4 + 1 = 5 (unless it equals 6)
When God asked us to consider a 5th child (and then snuck in her little brother at the last minute), we knew we would have to double-down on the “systems” if we were going to make it work.
Anne and I both dropped volunteer roles at church. We renewed our commitment to have dinner together as a family each night. We also re-avowed our disdain for Select Sports… declaring never to give up our family time in the evenings and on weekends to worship at the altar of Youth Soccer or Baseball.
We cemented our decision to adopt Sam and Ellie when Anne found a set of six different-colored cups, plates, and flatware. Having assigned each kid their own designated color from the ROYGBIV dinnerware collection, we felt like the last piece was in place.
And for the first two years that Sam and Ellie were home, we actually did pretty well. We planned the work, and we worked the plan.
Then came May.
Starting in early May of this year, everything stopped working. Jutt Night started getting interrupted by budding social lives and select soccer practices. (Did I forget to mention that we signed both Adam and Will up for Select Soccer? Hypocrisy, anyone?) Family dinners became an exchange of Chick-Fil-A nuggets in the back of the minivan, and weekends became a game of divide-and-conquer with texts as a chief form of connection… primarily to insure that the right kid ended up at the right field or concert. To top it all off, our basement was under construction to add some additional bedrooms, and the pricetag was exploding way beyond the original budget.
Every system we had so brilliantly conceived and painstakingly maintained began to break down.
“Great” parenting was off the table, and “good” seemed to be at risk.
And all of this came to a head one Sunday morning in late May.
The load of eight bathers became too much for our under-sized water heater… resulting in three people screaming through ice cold showers.
We were hurrying out the door in an attempt to be “less late” to church than usual. (I gave up any delusions of being “on time” to church after kid #4. But to be honest, Anne and I tended to be late to church before we ever had kids, but they make a much more credible excuse.)
On our way out the door, I tripped on Sam while he was trying to put on his shoes. Already frustrated from the stress of the morning, I snapped at him for taking so long… only to have him respond that his shoes were too small and did not fit any more… a complaint I initially dismissed until I realized that his feet literally would not fit into his shoes. (This was not an issue for Will and Ellie because the holes in the front of their shoes were big enough to release some pressure.)
As we tried to squeeze eight people into an aging minivan, Mia started crying when her hand got pinched in one of the folding seats while trying to climb into the back row. I initially feared that her hand had been caught in the door when it was closing automatically… but I quickly realized that was not possible because our automatic doors had stopped working a few weeks earlier, a problem we were not budgeted to repair given the fact that any extra money was all going against our ballooning basement bill.
Breakfast was a bag of barely thawed Blueberry Eggos flung like mini-frisbees to the kids while I tried to force the sliding door on our aging minivan to shut against its will. Meanwhile, Abby was trying to jam her enormous cello into the back of the van, but she couldn’t fit it around the piles of soccer-worshipping folding chairs and umbrellas. Ellie and Sam swallowed down their HIV medicine with Adam’s water bottle from the previous night’s out-of-town soccer tournament, and I remember thinking that its (unhygienic) presence in the car was one of the only things that had gone our way the whole morning.
Our delinquency only got worse when I was reminded by Will that we needed after-game snacks for his game that afternoon… precipitating a U-turn into the Kroger parking lot so I could sprint in to grab 16 snack-sized Doritos and a small crate of lemon-lime Gatorade.
At this point it felt silly to even keep going to church since half of our kids were wearing jerseys and cleats in anticipation of leaving early for the aforementioned games.
I was stressed and tired and mad… the picture of the kind of dad I never wanted to be.
And then it happened.
I heard Sam’s scratchy voice from the seat behind me.
“Dad, I need to tell you something.”
OK. Here it comes. Now is when he reveals how disappointed he is in me as his father. Now is when he begins to articulate all of the ways that I have failed to live up to the standards of what a father should be… his emotional scars from not co-sleeping, his stunted intellectual development because I let him play too many video games, his doomed athletic career because his shoes did not fit properly. It was all about to come out…and I deserved it.
At that moment, the frustration fell away and was replaced by a wave of disappointment… not in the kids, not in the situation… but in myself. This is not who I meant to be.
And so with a deep breath of resignation, I prepared to face the justified wrath of my youngest child. “Yes, Sam. What do you want to tell me?”
“When me and Ellie was in China, I was wanting a dad like you.”
I must have misunderstood what he was saying. Perhaps he meant, “When I was in China, I wanted a REAL dad… not one like you.” Or, “You are such a bad father that I wish you lived in China.” Or even, “When I was in China with NO dad, it was still better than the miserable job you are doing.”
And so I asked the question of clarification, “What did you say, Sam?”
“In China, I was wanting a dad like you.”
And then I turned around to look my boy in the eyes, and I started crying like an idiot. I cried because I still wasn’t sure the sliding door was really closed all the way. I cried because I was so stinking exhausted by soccer and by mud-tracking construction workers in my house. I cried because I was dying for a date with Anne. I cried because shampoo is much harder to make than you would probably guess.
But mostly I cried because my systems, my planning, my whole hope for pulling this thing off well had completely failed, and somehow this beautiful, scratchy-voiced boy (who was wearing his sister’s pink Crocs) wanted a dad like messed-up me.
Suddenly I saw the whole ridiculous mess for the beautiful dream-come-true that it really is. And then I cried some more, remembering that I almost said “no” to bringing them home because I was afraid of a day just like this one.
What a merciful, merciful God we serve.
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. – Colossians 1:17