The First Nine Months of Belonging

It takes a baby nine months to grow and develop enough in the mother's womb before he can break into the world, sudden and sharp, rich and beautiful, with a cry that lets us know he's alive. During those nine months, a baby grows his organs, hands, and toes. There are teeth buds forming under his gums. He even develops his own unique fingerprint, tastebuds, and eyebrows. He learns how to kick his little feet and stretch his tiny arms. The design of a baby's intricate formation in the womb is so exquisite, it feels almost impossible when it's happening inside of you. But it makes sense that an exquisite God would create such an exquisite design, and that He would know how long it would take us to get ready for him.

It has taken our family the full nine months to prepare to welcome this little one into our family, just as he has taken the full nine months to grow and develop. We have gathered all of the baby supplies, set up the nursery, and read the books (kind of) to prepare for the baby's arrival. But we didn't just need the nine months for the physical preparation; we also needed it for emotional preparation. We needed nine months to prepare for little sleep, new routines, and more love to make its way into our family.

For nine months, I have felt, both physically and emotionally, the presence of another, actual person inside of my body. He has fluttered, kicked, and lodged himself into my ribcage. I have had to use the restroom incessantly, throw up more times than I could tell you, and drink an abnormal amount of water to satiate my thirst. My body has grown and shifted; my belly is larger than I ever thought it possibly could be. I'm starting to get accustomed to his company, which may be the whole point of the nine months anyway. He's doing his best to grow and develop, and I'm doing my best to make sure we can welcome a healthy baby with ready, open, and loving arms.

Because the work we're doing isn't easy.

Becoming a family is hard work.

Belonging takes time.

From the moment a baby begins growing in the womb, he is building attachment with his mother. He becomes accustomed to her voice, her food choices, her laugh. As he hears her and grows within her, he becomes a part of her, and she a part of him. This is why children who are separated from their mothers, even as a newborn, face significant trauma. God has beautifully designed mothers and babies to experience a bond and attachment throughout the nine-month process of fetal development, and to continue that bond and attachment in their first few years (and beyond). As Baby Pancake has grown from the size of a kidney bean to a watermelon, he has learned to whom he belongs: me. As he flutters and kicks and moves, I whisper to him, "I'm right here. You belong right here."

This - this act of creating belonging - is an honor and responsibility I do not take lightly, as I have had to fiercely fight for it with my two older children. Oddly, both of them became forever members of our family after nine months of being in our home through foster care. Those nine months, in many ways, mirrored the nine months of Baby Pancake growing in my womb, except that he, fortunately, got a free pass from witnessing our clumsy and awkward preparation for entry into our family. He, a baby, is blissfully unaware (for now) of our lack of knowledge about raising babies and our many shortcomings as parents.

When we signed up for foster care, I got excited about creating a space of belonging for kids who felt out of place, unwanted. We set up the "foster" room with a chalkboard wall, reading "You Are Loved," not having any idea of what it would take to live out those words with children who, in many ways, reacted against our efforts to welcome them. Contrary to my imagination, our children didn't automatically feel like they belonged in our family, and who can blame them? Children who have faced trauma, have experienced foster care, or who are adoptees often struggle with belonging and identity for their whole lives. How could we expect them to immediately feel loved when most people in the world were telling them they weren't? Older kids, sibling groups, and children with special needs are usually overlooked in the foster care system, causing them to live in group homes, shelters, or sometimes even jump from foster family to foster family. When our children came to live with us, we were trying to communicate, "You belong here," to kids who had heard "You don't belong anywhere," for their much of their lives. It has been an uphill battle, to say the least.

Even though our kids have joined our family forever through adoption, the world doesn't always recognize us as a family. Overall, we have experienced acceptance and love from our community. But we have also experienced stares from stangers (usually when we travel) and odd questions and statements like, "When are you having your own kids?" and "You're going to make such a good mom!" when I announced my pregnancy. They might not have meant it, but they're challenging our identity as family. Once, at Walmart, we were waiting for our turn to enter the store. The employee asked, "Two?" thinking that my two children were together (likely because we have different color skin), but not with me. She didn't know that we belonged to one another; she couldn't see the endless hours we had worked to belong to each other, to become family.

Sometimes, our own kids don't recognize us as family, either. During their time with us, there have been many moments of crossing out faces of family pictures, turning pictures over, not telling us when they got hurt at school, or not being able to communicate their needs or wants. As a mom, I deeply want them to feel like valuable members of our family. Their actions deeply hurt me, but over time, I realized that they were communicating, through their behavior, that they didn't know where they belonged. And so, over time, I have tried to consistently show them (and tell them) the same thing I have whispered to Baby Pancake: "I'm right here. You belong right here."

During those first nine months, our children adjusted to us, our routines, our rules. They ate the food that we ate and drank 2% milk instead of whole. They listened to our music and settled into our routines (of a youth pastor and a full-time high school teacher - bless them). They got used to their new rooms and sleeping alone when they were used to sleeping with siblings. They became accustomed to their new schools, new teachers, and new summer schedules and rhythms.

And we adjusted to them. We asked them their favorite foods and tried to incorporate them into our meal plan. We gave hugs or fistbumps or high fives and let them try out different activities that sounded interesting to them. We bought some of the foods they were familiar with, like Ramen, grits, and oatmeal. We stayed in their rooms until they fell asleep (when they needed it), sat outside their bedrooms during meltdowns, and prayed for them when they wanted to be "left alone." We became obsessed with their dance moves and their giggles and watching them play basketball.

In those nine months, they became a part of us, and we a part of them. Little by little, belonging started to inch its way into their hearts. But it was toward the end of those nine months that we realized that the act of adoption, of signing a paper, of changing a last name, would not seal the deal of belonging, just as it won't for Baby Pancake as he leaves the womb and enters the world. Beyond birth and adoption, we will continually fight for the belonging of our kids, whether they become part of our family through foster care, adoption, or birth. Their first nine months with us is just the start - the very beginning - of their journey of belonging.

We have fought hard for our kids' belonging. And they have fought to belong.

But this fight has not come without cost. For nine long months (and for every blessed month thereafter), we have shown up, and they have shown up, doing the hard work of becoming a family - together. We have spent every waking moment trying to show them that they belong when the world has told them that they are not worthy of belonging. We have all had to sacrifice, reframe expectations, and change our definition of family. As parents, we have loved without receiving love in return. This path to belonging has not been an easy one, but it has been worth every unreceived hug, every hard conversation, every hard-earned fist bump.

Some days, we see glimpses of their belonging, reminding us why we fight for it. The other day, KK divided our "Stack of Memories" book into five sections so that each of us would have our own part of the book. She is starting to recognize it - I thought - she belongs here.

As we fight for our children's belonging, we remember the One who fought for ours, the One who gave up His rightful place in Heaven so that we could become the sons and daughters of God. But our belonging did not come without cost. As He hung on the Cross, bruised and beaten, He whispered the words "You belong right here." And with those words, He welcomed us into the family of God.

And when we fully understand our place as sons and daughters of the One True God, we expand our definition of family - of belonging. We include the un-includable, we invite the un-inviteable, we welcome the un-welcomable. We offer places of belonging to those who don't feel like they belong. And when it costs us, we gladly pay the price because we know and love the One who paid ours.

A Benediction

When our children ask, "Where do I belong?"

May we whisper, "Right here."

May our children always know their belonging

as our sons and daughters

so that they know their place

as the sons and daughters of the Living God.

And as they come to more fully understand

their belonging in the family of God,

may they extend this belonging to others

- but especially to those who don't feel like they belong

- to the poor, the downtrodden, the sick, the widow,

the homeless, the hurting, the prisoner, the broken,

the motherless, the fatherless, the immigrant, the refugee.

May their identity as sons and daughters

broaden their view of family

to welcome the very people

who are the least welcome-able.

And when others ask, "Where do I belong?"

May they whisper, "Right here."

Some Truth for ya:

Romans 8:15-17

So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.

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