I was fresh out of college—just five months out, to be exact— when I received a 3 a.m. phone call that would forever change my life:
This is the police. There’s been an accident involving your brother and grandfather. Please come right away.
Trailing behind that call came a series of unnerving voicemails from my birth mom. She was clearly drunk, slurring her words and flexing her tone. Even at twenty-two years old, after not living with her for nearly ten years, her voice still made me shudder and feel sick inside. As a kid, this voice was often followed by some kind of abuse—whether physical, psychological, or verbal.
I ignored her voicemails with a roll of my eyes and jumped into my car to drive to the hospital. It was thirty minutes away—the longest, quietest drive of my life. What I remember most about it was the pavement, the silence of my car’s tires circling on the road, and the loud thuds of my rapidly beating heart.
When I arrived, the police let me know my grandfather had been tragically killed in the accident, and social services was on their way. I learned that my grandfather and brother had been sleeping in the car regularly to avoid my birth mom’s drunken rampages. When my brother Rex heard that social services was coming, he fearfully pleaded with me to not let our other two younger brothers be taken away. That night I made a promise to keep them all together, no matter the cost.
But, I couldn’t keep this promise perfectly. All three of my brothers lived with me for nearly two years, but because of Orange County Social Services’ commitment to pursue reunification, the two younger boys were reunified with their birth mom. Fortunately, my husband and I were able to adopt Rex, the oldest of the three. Then, six months ago, after nearly two years of not seeing or hearing from the younger boys, social services called and informed me that they were back in the system and needed us. With bittersweet excitement, we picked them up, and are only six months away from (hopefully) being able to adopt them.
There is a lot more to this story. There were long evenings of night terrors and experiences that made me grow up extremely fast. I became a full-time mom overnight. Then, after the two younger boys were reunified, my husband and I welcomed our first biological child into the world—our daughter, Scout. We were pregnant with our second child when we received the call that our sons, our boys, were back at the Orangewood Children and Family Center.
It’s hard for me to get through a conversation without someone finding out that my husband and I have five kids. This brings up a lot of questions for a lot of reasons—one of them being that the math just doesn’t make sense. My husband and I have been married just two years! When people catch wind of our story, I often get the question, “How do you have so much joy when you’ve experienced so much pain?” This question makes me hesitate because I don’t realize that I’m showing joy—I don’t try to act happy or extra peppy. I would actually rather be known for authenticity than joy.
When I’m at events for work or meeting people for the first time, they don’t usually know that I have four to five missed calls from lawyers, social workers, you name it, demanding my time and energy right away… because, apparently, raising five kids, working, and being a pastor’s wife isn’t enough to keep me busy.
At a recent work event, I was leading a community discussion on valor (see picture). The definition of valor is bravery, especially in the light of battle. The women there had no idea their facilitator had just come through a gigantic meltdown, caused by an inexperienced social worker’s careless comments to one of our sons. After the storm passed, I had to rush to make myself look presentable, somehow set aside my own feelings of extreme anger that come only with being a mommy (“you hurt my child—I hurt you,” kind of emotion. You feel me, moms?) and rush out to this event to facilitate this conversation, and welcome and invite women to share their own experiences in business and life. Somehow, a piece of my story was brought up. Someone asked me the famous question: But how do you have so much joy?
As usual, I was taken by surprise and I paused. For various reasons, I paused. I wanted to make sure my answer was real, and I also wanted to make sure my answer was accessible. This wasn’t a Christian gathering or Bible study. It was a gathering for creative entrepreneurs. So, I paused. And I realized and shared that the joy comes from being honest with myself in my emotions. To recognize that the pain and stress of the situation are real and exist, and cannot be dismissed, and that being honest with myself and with others brings that sense of joy.
The good ol’ church girl in me knows the right answer: Jesus! And yes, obviously, Jesus is my answer. He gives me the joy I need to get through the day. But Jesus also provides the gift of joy that comes with the sorrow. I want to genuinely believe and express, not so much with my words, but model with my demeanor and care for others, that there is a Solid Rock I stand on in these stormy times, and to use my experience as a testimony of belief that nothing is wasted when it’s in Christ’s care. It isn’t a Sunday school type of jump- jump-jump joy. Sometimes, oftentimes, it’s a quietness I carry or a listening ear I can offer. I use whatever feeble strength I have, on any given day, to show this mysterious thing to others: this joy of the Lord. Yes, He is my source of joy, but it is a mystery and marriage with pain that creates the beauty of understanding our weakness is met with Christ’s strength. Being alright with remaining unresolved and being okay with being “messy”… that is the joy. And even though I hesitate, and might be nervous to share, I have never missed an opportunity to express the reality of the joy that is the genuine, authentic reality of this whole situation I like to call life.