Great Again

I looked down, using all possible restraint to not bite back, to avoid defending myself, and simply repeated my previous response, “Please don’t text me anymore right now. Have a good time tonight with the boys.” Then I tossed my phone onto the countertop, face down, and walked away.

This small act of letting go, of non-response, would have felt impossible five years ago. I hate tension and naturally scramble to pacify aggression. I’m also sensitized to accusation, and my mind relentlessly spits out points, counterpoints and questions. I hated leaving his words hanging, unrefuted, as if their merit left me speechless.

Most of the time things flow smoothly with our exes and co-parenting, but we all still have triggers which run deep and can explode from time to time. As I sank into the tangerine chair, tears slid down my cheeks. No immediate act could truly lessen the pain of the new wound. I could only choose not to make it worse, not to pick up my own sword, and eventually, to forgive. I knew from much experience that forgiveness was the way to refuse this new wound permanency.

After the tears dried up, after my neighbor stopped by for some tea and silliness, my spirit began to lift. I finally picked up my phone, relieved to see the texts had ceased.

Then my eyes fell to the top of the screen, on his contact name, and my stomach lurched.

John the Great.

A few months ago, one of our mischievous little boys had been changing my screensaver and decided to also change the contact names of everyone in our family. And ‘extended’ family. Newton became Newton the Great. Papa – Papa the Great. And suddenly, my ex-husband had become Great.

When I first saw he had changed his father’s title, I immediately began to change it back. But I stopped. I chose, I willed, to keep it. To accept that mental signal every time his name appeared on my screen. To see his Greatness.

In that moment of wounding, I again longed to erase the title. But I knew it was still a choice, not a feeling. Even in pain I could choose the position of my heart. So many of these small choices have paved the way for real freedom in my life – things like speaking highly of him, especially to the children, or thanking God for the positive things he does and says, And so I kept it as it was and chose again, the way of grace, the way forward; a way that draws out Greatness in everyone.

I’ve also heard this referred to as ‘calling out the gold’ in someone else. It flows so naturally for me with my friends and loved ones, but real transformation happens in deliberate choice, when it’s often the hardest with people who have hurt you the most.

If you only love the lovable, do you expect a pat on the back? Run-of-the-mill sinners do that. If you only help those who help you, do you expect a medal? Garden-variety sinners do that…

I tell you, love your enemies. Help and give without expecting a return. You’ll never—I promise—regret it. Live out this God-created identity the way our Father lives toward us, generously and graciously, even when we’re at our worst.
Our Father is kind; you be kind.


Graham Cooke refers to difficult relationships in our lives as grace growers, because they are regular opportunities for us to develop in character. These gifts are often abundant with divorce and blended families. There is a unique challenge in continuing to co-parent with someone you’re not married and committed to, and loving children transplanted into your unique family. The value of what’s at stake can often make situations volatile, and the person on the other side can feel like an enemy. But every conflict, every struggle, rises up as an opportunity to choose generosity and grace, no matter who is on the receiving end. These choices are carried out in actions, in words, and in attitudes. And they will bring a return, eventually.

Graham outlines a really practical exercise for this which I’ve summarized here if you want to dig deeper. Who are the grace growers in your life right now? What is just one active way you can choose kindness toward them today? Establishing that new upward direction can start with just one act: words that build up, choosing to overlook an offense, giving more than is required; the possibilities are endless. Your choices to do so will pave a way for you and for them and for your own unique life that is truly Great. You’ll never—I promise—regret it.

Sharing the Burdens

Not long after we married, a picture began to form. I saw the real challenges of our unexpected life meeting the real creativity of a kind God, and wondered if these stories were really just for us alone. Did others need to hear the hope and imagine the possibilities? Was there anyone else out there on their own unexpected journey looking for encouragement and a brighter way forward?

I became convinced that the answer was yes. But could it be done in a way that protected all the parties involved? The exes, the children, and everyone in between: this answer was unclear. So I began building and writing the blog privately, anonymously, to see what could be done. The children knew, but they were also very young. Ever-so-slowly I began curating our unexpected life onto the virtual page. I showed it only to a number of close friends, unsure of how or when it would ever be released into the open, but not wanting to forget the stories in the meantime.

Then the babies came, one after another, and the curating slowed. I breathed them in, my last little ones to nuzzle and nurse. I shelved the writing here, for a season or forever, I simply did not know.

But God did.

Recently the trip of a lifetime turned into the opportunity of a lifetime, and I was able to write a piece for my favorite publication, Darling Magazine. I love everything about them: what they say, how they say it, the culture they are creating. It was such an honor to contribute in any way to their voice. When the last edits were completed and they asked which url I’d like listed by my name and contribution, I knew the time had come. The blog would no longer be anonymous, the stories would no longer just be for us. But in that moment I also knew that I would not open that door without the full awareness and blessing of our children. Each and every one of them. Papa and I would tell them all about it, and they too, would have a voice. Just one veto from them would close the door. But we trusted that ultimately if God was behind this He would be the one to speak to their hearts, just as He had to ours.

When the day arrived, I scanned the room registering seven little pairs of eyes, and took a deep breath.

“Everyone here has been hurt deeply by divorce. We all know the pain, but we also know God, and have seen how He can bring goodness to anything. We each carry a story of hope, and hope is something so many people need that I want to share our story. I know we told you about the blog early on, but you are much older now, and the Darling article has given us an opportunity to begin to share our stories with others. We wanted to read to you some of what I’ve been writing, and give you time to respond. We care what you think, and how you feel about this.”

They nodded and stretched back into more comfortable positions. Gangly limbs sprawled out on rocking chairs, sofas, and carpet as I began reading their profiles out loud. The room overflowed with laughter and agreement,”Wow, that’s totally Wesley!” “Yes, Eliot still does that all the time!” and occasionally, “Can I have a different name..?”

The last character description was met with cheering, and encouragement, and praise. They loved hearing the story of Them. I continued by reading the most recent post.

It ended in a roomful of grinning faces, bubbling with excitement and cheering on the blog. But as my eyes scanned the room, I noticed one face obscured by a pillow. I sat beside him, lightly rubbing his back, “Are you ok?”

This broke the dam, and tears slipped across his cheek, pooling in the pillow ridge. No amount of prompting brought any words, there were only tears.

These moments break my mama-heart. Again. And threaten to dredge up all the hurt and offense that surely I’ve buried and forgiven a thousand times over by now. I am vigilant. I don’t let them emerge. But it takes muscle to stuff back the ‘What if’s’ and “How could they” and “Whys”.

As I continue rubbing his back, I look around to see that he is surrounded by quiet, loving stares. What is there to say? What is there to do? Even with a whole room full of people who would do anything for him in an instant.

One bonus-brother disappears into the bathroom and returns with Kleenex. After placing them in his hand, he sits at his brother’s feet and begins rubbing them.

The silent tears slow.

Another bonus-brother gets up from the floor and eases in next to the hurting one on the sofa. Without saying a word, he simply slides his arm around his shoulders, and stares silently off into the same direction. They sit there, the two of them, understanding.

The slow tears stop.

Wet cheeks are wiped dry. And the night continues on. We watch the movie we had planned, and the entire time, the boys remain connected. Comforted.

Even in the moments where the pain again rears its head, God’s supplies grace to remind me of the good. Grief is now divided and shared. Burdens are not carried alone. Hearts have been broken but hearts have also been put together. And God has indeed been doing what He promised; blending and growing, bringing unity and goodness.

Which is why when all was said and done, every single member of our family gave their blessing and green light for the telling of our story. The ones that cheered, the one that wept, and the one who pulled him close. They know and believe that even when life is unexpected and imperfect, the strawberries are remarkable, and worth sharing.

The Art of Celebration

Newton stood tall, taller than me, leaning up against his new Trek as the other boys stacked wads of bills into his open palm. After handing over the cash, each one grabbed the tiny orange notebook to record their requests. Early on in his delivery service, he realized that written, signed orders were the best way to avoid problems. When the flurry ceased, he read the itemized list out loud and then stuffed it along with the bills into his gaping backpack. He reassured the sea of excited little faces, “These should be no problem. I’ll be back in time for you to wrap everything,” and with that he pulled down his sunglasses, hopped on his ride and sped off.

The boys then turned to each other with nonstop chatter, faces flushed with anticipation.

“He’s going to be so surprised!”

“That poster is awesome! I hope he puts it up in our room.”

“Or the playroom.”

“Maybe I should wrap a pack of gum, too? I think I still have an extra.”

“Come on, let’s go finish our cards for him,” they stomped back up the porch stairs and into the house.

I stood still in the driveway for a moment, a perfect day, breeze blowing against one cheek while Sawyer nuzzled the other. I was practicing a new goal:

Being present.

We’ve come so far in these years, uniting two separate families into one. There are many moments I miss, but a few like this where I see the rich picture for what it is. One of the richest is their celebration for each other. It is never forced or manipulated by us; they genuinely love to celebrate every individual little person in our tribe.

With 10 people in our immediate family now, regular life is peppered with birthdays. We do birthdays more than haircuts or yardwork or some weeks, showers. It could get old.

How many different ways are there to make someone feel special? How many different kinds of cake can be eaten before it just becomes routine?

And yet without fail the kids rally every single time, authentically loving the one to be celebrated. The ones they share blood with, the ones they share names with, the ones they share a bedroom with, the ones they share only through the marriage of their parents. Every. Single. One. Ever since Newton’s delivery service began, they love to earn money in the weeks ahead and plan for what spectacular gift they can give from the neighborhood Chocolatier or the ever-affordable Five and Below: a store teaming with treasures like foam weapons, automatic card shufflers, and $5 t-shirts in perfect line with elementary-boy humor.

My favorite moments are not even in the excitement-build I experience with them or watching the glow on the birthday boy’s face as they surround him. It is a few minutes that happen during every birthday dinner, a dinner that each child plans down to the drink and napkins (which is special in itself when you are one of many). Tonight we will be having lasagna, mashed potatoes, root beer and cherry pie – all devoured, per request, without utensils. As we lick cheesy marinara off of our fingertips someone will naturally begin the ritual.

“Magellan, I love your generosity. And how you help teach me games. And how you never let Newton bounce me off the trampoline.”

“Yeah! He does that for me too,” someone else will chime in, and pick up the baton. “He always stands up for other people. Like on the playground this summer, how you made Alex stop picking on that new little boy. And even how you defend the bugs when Wesley tries to kill them! You are brave and kind.”

And on it will go, each child, each parent, each grandparent there, calling out the gold in the birthday boy. What they love, what they see, what has grown and blossomed in a year’s time. No repeats allowed. Everyone adds something. And everyone is eager to contribute.

Divorce is a thief and there are many things lost that can’t be replaced.

And at times sharing everything with so many weighs on them and stretches them. So I soak in the days of celebration – a stealth peek at the rich layers ever-growing and cementing underneath. Each separate person makes our whole greater, especially as they lean in towards each other. Every birthday meal, every table full of beaming faces, is an aerial reminder for me that there is indeed much to celebrate.

Plus Size

Amy Schumer’s objections to the plus-size label received a lot of attention lately. As I turned the words over in my mind, I suddenly had a new framework for my life. Because if anything describes our family, it is certainly Plus Size.

Labeling can be damaging or restrictive; but it can also empower and provide context. This one is dead on for us. Rarely can we eat in a restaurant or book a hotel without a reminder that we are not Normal Size. When it was time to purchase a vehicle we had to walk right past all of the sedans and even the mini-vans. Nothing mini for this family. The giant, overfull Carmax lot had not one car to fit our family. Not one. We ended up with a Nissan NV 12-passenger van, which is still bursting at the seams on every family trip.

We turn heads everywhere we go. 20 feet stomping into the coffeeshop, a wave of bodies pouring out of the Big Black Van, loud voices filling the auditorium as we enter a concert. We’ve been asked many times if we are a youth group, if we are babysitters, even if we need help. But this is by far the most common question to me:

“Are these all yours?”

I hate answering this more than anything. Because yes, most certainly, they are all ours. Ours in the sense that we love them all, feed them all, drive each one to baseball , to violin, to the dentist, the doctor, camp in Wisconsin. For each we have cleaned up vomit, picked out lice, cheered at games, held in tears, admonished, praised, and raised up. Each and every one is ours.

But invariably the question quickly follows:

“You actually gave birth to this many kids?”

Well, no.

I’ve birthed 5 which is not a small feat – but no, I did not birth all 8. I am not the birth-mother of three of them. And I have great respect for the honor, and special place, that a birth parent holds. Does claiming them as ours negate that? I’ve wrestled with everything from embarrassment to shame to frustration in the throes of this question. And many times, second-guessed my answers. Because the follow-up always leads to more questions; more curiosity at our plus-size family, and how we came to be. So many pre-conceived ideas about divorce and remarriage are hard to fend off without over-sharing. But I’ve finally reached a conclusion, and peace.

Are these children all ours? Do I feel God has entrusted me with the care and raising of all 8 of them? Yes, without a doubt.

And if I can envision all 8 little people standing there while being asked, I know that they know the answer is Yes. Any other answer would break their little hearts. Would I draw a line, point to the curly-haired girl and the two boys with glasses as I shake my head no, No not these?

Of course not. Of course they are ours, every one of them.

So how we came to be plus-size might remain obscure. I may not be able to answer every curiosity. Especially in Chicago we will probably continue to be a fascinating sideshow. But I’ve become confident in our label, and in being uniquely whole, together.

Our Unexpected Gift

I buried my dream of giving birth to a girl many times. After having boy after boy after boy; after the divorce; even after the beautiful new baby boy with Papa last year. I had to realize that this dream was just not in the cards for me.

And yet again, my story goes:

But God…

When I least expected it, without any orchestrating on my part, I was given this amazing gift.

The caboose of our giant family; a tiny, baby girl.

Welcome home little one.

Welcome, Baby