Even though the plant’s tag read “full shade,” I was sure that if I planted it in a bright, sunny spot, it would do even better.  I have learned much about plants over the years.  I have learned that more sun is definitely not better for impatiens, and that tomatoes will not grow well if planted in the same spot, year after year.  I have yet to learn, though, how to protect the vulnerable from the forces that strike when we do not expect them, and when they are far from welcome.

But there really aren’t any directions, at least not any reliable ones.  I thought things were better, but then it comes screaming back.  I guess it never quite settles, though it seems to from time to time.  We might look okay, like the blooms of sparkling fuschia and the sun’s cheer of yellow that spill boldly forth from the repurposed white enamel pot.  Nobody would speculate that they had been picked at, stripped, and stomped on by my curious flock of chickens before being salvaged, repotted, and resurrected to glory.  They were almost lost, but it wasn’t time.

How long is this going to take?  

I did learn, though, in those early years of gardening, that real lavender leaves and blossoms smell just like Yardley of London pump soap, and that this enchanting herb will grow into a fanciful, robust hedge in just a few years’ time.  And recently, I learned that the chickens will leave lavender alone.  That, to me, is victory.

“Let the chickens do all of your garden work for you.”

Here comes Wendell with the hand weeder and his pair of gloves to pick  the stray grass from underneath the tomato cages.  Jenny is not far behind, equipped with twine to tame the snap pea climbers.

I really didn’t think that would happen, as some books and articles had promised, but I still don’t recommend adopting the belief that your herbs will be pruned to prize status by your flock.

They fertilize the land.  What more could I ask for?

There will be destruction, devastation, even regret.  Things will not come out even, and maybe we will be less confident than before it all began.   We will work for nearly nothing, and our bodies will be stiff and sore.  We just want to lie down and rest.

Maybe it will be seasons, years, even decades before we see the sun.  It seems to be ready to peek forth from behind the clouds.  There are a few glorious rays, but then we can no longer see.  Darkness comes over us, and again, we wonder.

I figured out that I can fasten a length of wire fencing into a dome to protect my new plantings.  Of course, the chickens can knock them over or pull them apart, but sometimes, what I have done is enough…at least for one small chamomile plug on a windy Sunday morning.

The richness of what they have left for us must surely be enough to feed our souls as the land for a while longer.

I guess it is best to follow directions, at least the obvious ones.  They don’t tell you, though, that even if you plant the impatiens in the shade, feed it with fish emulsion, and provide plenty of water, a curious chicken may still cause it’s demise.

We don’t know.  How could we ever be expected to?  

In all of the amazement and surprise of a baby hatching at the farm, I hadn’t given a thought to the true possibility that Kitty May could be a rooster.  She looks different from all the others, and she seems a gentle, independent, spirited little hen…or rooster.  One day, she will either crow or lay an egg, and there will be no more questions.  Until this day, though, I am content in my hope that Kitty May will be joining the other girls in the nest boxes.

It must be okay not to know.

Darkness had long since fallen when I returned from the hospital without my child.  When I passed by the garden, there was enough light coming from the window in the main house that I could see that four of my young plants had been uprooted, surely the work of curious chickens.  I was tired, so they would have to wait until morning.

And I guess it’s alright to wait for lots of other things, too, especially when there aren’t any rules or instructions.  It’s just not time yet.  

This spring, the lavender has come back rich and strong, with just a few bare branches.  I know, too, that in time, however long it may take, and even if a new rooster crows on the farm, the holes will begin to fill in, and we will admire the flowers in their magnificent resilience.


What’s In Your Egg Basket?

Something happened.  Something went wrong, or maybe it didn’t.  Words that interrupted my idle thoughts as I stood at the kitchen sink,  face-to-face with dinner’s aftermath, cannot be taken back.  Even as I feel the blood rush through my legs and the empty space grow in my soul, I find solace in a cupcake.  It’s the last one, hidden in the back corner of the freezer, leftover from a forgotten celebration.  Rich chocolate of the most devilish kind, with a perfectly swirled pink vanilla piped frosting, made extra special with a fairy dusting of sparkling sugar…gone in an instant. The experts would probably call this emotional eating.  Alone on it’s plate, it beckoned, and I ate it.

If I get out to the coop at just the right time, I can get an egg that still feels warm to the touch.  Fresh from it’s laying hen, this egg rides in the cup holder of my car as I take the baby in to town for therapy. It acccompanies me across the road to the mailbox.  I hold it gingerly in my hand as I look around the farm, thinking of the blooms that will pepper the summer’s garden and imagining the tiny herd of goats that might one day entertain us in the pasture.  Everything seems to hold a bit more promise as I am reassured by the blue-green chicken egg that brings so much to me.

It’s an egg.  I could get a dozen eggs for a little more than a dollar at the grocery store.  

After what seemed like two hours but was actually just over ten minutes, I could feel his body melt into mine.  He made his way to the pink chair, my favorite one.  The storm had subsided, and Dan was home by now.  There were no more cupcakes, but I could get my egg basket, and I could see if there were any eggs to gather.  Even if the hens were done laying for the day, I would breathe the peace of the outside air and know that in this moment, I am okay.  We are okay, right now.  Even if I returned to the house with an empty basket, I would know, because of what it represents, that the basket is actually quite full, if not of eggs. 

There might be different things inside the basket on a given day. Pink sparkly cupcakes, my best well worn sweater, the anticipation of my sister’s visit, my special water bottle, the thought of my fairy roses and my Christmas milk punch: these are in my basket.  In it I can also find the way it feels when all is quiet, when I am washing the last plate, when bedtime has blanketed the little ones in a soft hush (at least for a few hours), when I am able to sneak down to the cellar to start my onion seeds in their fresh peat pots, and when the promise of spring is tangible in the form of garden catalogs that have begun to arrive two-a-day by mail.

To me, it’s much more than just an egg.

There are people, many people, in my egg basket, which is also full of robust donut shop coffee and baseball.  These people fill me up when I most need them, and even when I don’t know what I need.  One brings me ice cream in the middle of the night, another sends me a message that makes my stomach hurt from laughing, and another came to sit with me and did not mention one word about the cheese that stuck to the bottom of her shoe as she walked through my  kitchen.  

When the questions are bigger than the answers after a quarter century of parenting, when the pancakes burned because I had to step away from the griddle to mediate a fight, when I don’t want to look past today for fear of what I might see, and even when someone has eaten the last secret cupcake, I can go to the chicken coop with my egg basket, and I know that I will feel better for having gone.  Experts might think that this is emotional egg gathering.  Though I am far from an expert, I think it might be.  

I don’t think we can really know what is in someone else’s egg basket, at least not everything, anyway. It’s probably not even an egg.  For our deepest friendships, yes, we sometimes do know some of what the basket holds, or we can do our best to try to figure it out.  And even the thought of someone trying to understand what is inside can be enough to fill it up.

When the bread is baking, when my grown son calls to share his excitement at his new venture, when I take a minute to look at my vintage cookie jars, when my daughter’s eyes flash so brightly that I can nearly feel the warmth of her happiness, when the little boys drive their construction trucks in rare harmony, perched together atop the gravel pile; these are the times that I have enough to share my basket with others.  

I might miss the glory of the Northern Illinois sunset if I don’t hurry out now to close the chicken door for the night.  While I am out there, I will be sure to check for eggs one last time.

What I Hope You Will Know


 “And just as the darkness got very dark, he bumped into his big fur mother, and she took her little fur child home in her arms and gave him his supper.”  –from “Little Fur Family” by Margaret Wise Brown

Here is what I hope you will know: it is different.  Raising babies that I have birthed is not the same as raising children not born to me.  Do I love you, my children, differently?  I would like to think that love can rise above the unknown, and even that which is known but unthinkable.  I would like to think that love transcends all boundaries and fills the hollow spaces with what needs to be there.  The difference lies in circumstances, in history.  With my biological children, whom I have known since before you were born, the history is ours.  Together, we have been one.  For my children that came to me when the journey had already begun, for you that were matched to me by the stars and the forces beyond, at the expense of a different path and different players, the history is yours, mine, and others’.  Only eventually is it ours, too.

I hope you know that you are not fortunate or blessed to have me.  We have been given to one another in this life, and we have each other to stand alongside against our struggles.  There’s a place between wanting to cover up and hide away from all the bad things that happened, to pretend that they never were, and wishing I could share more than I even know, to help your actions and behavior make just a little more sense to others in a world of judgment.  I don’t want to make excuses, nor do I feel that I should hold your hand through all of the challenges and conflicts, which are almost daily, and which are often sporn from a place deep inside and from many yesterdays ago: a place from where the fallout never ceases.

I hope that some day, you can see yourself as I see you;  I hope that you will let others hear your laughter and let them see the real sparkle that dances in your eye.    I hope, too, that you know that when your day is guided by anger, grief, sadness, despair, and darkness, these hours will not define you, and you will not be alone.

I hope you will believe and understand that what “happened” is not for all to know.  I hope you understand and believe that you will be a strong adult for what you have overcome, but that you are still yet a child who is trying to find your place in a world that is not always gracious or forgiving.

When you fall, when you are shattered, I will do my very best to help pick up the pieces.  I know, though, that in the end it is up to you to forge the path to your future.  No matter where the path leads, you will always have a place here, at home.

I hope you hope, right along with me.

I hope you know, too, how very deeply you are loved, no matter how or when you arrived.  

 All of you.

“Sleep, sleep, our little fur child, out of the windiness, out of the wild.  Sleep warm in your fur all night long, in your little fur family.  This is a song.” –from “Little Fur Family” by Margaret Wise Brown

Chicken Anxiety

In twenty days, ten two-day-old chickens will be waiting for me at Farm and Fleet.  My chickens, highly touted and long awaited, will be coming home.  They will lay fresh eggs for our family, they will serve as my partners in the garden, and they will be the realization of my first vision for Ihm Home Farm.

My teeth would begin to ache when the hour approached.  It was nearly impossible to pay attention to Sister Roberta’s geometry lesson, however riveting it may have been, as my mind bumbled along images of note cards… reciting words that I had spent into the wee morning hours committing to memory for next hour’s sophomore speech class.

I have never been comfortable talking in front of a crowd of people.   Thirty uniform-clad teenagers, attention at half-mast, and one robust nun who counted points off for every stutter or “um,” was certainly considered a crowd as I stood at the front of the class to face my fears.   Knowing my subject made my presentation easier but did nothing to calm my nerves, quiet my shakes, or make me enjoy high school speech.

For many years I have been dreaming of chickens free ranging on our property.  Now, the chickens are on the way, and with this vision has come “chicken anxiety.”

The familiar current began running through my body as the caller ID proclaimed “State of Illinois.”  This would likely mean one thing: a new foster placement.  All of the things that I had been meaning to accomplish or prepare “in case” loomed before me as one unattainable “to-do” list.  I forgot to get the lice remedy after the last one ran out, we have no more bananas, I was going to paint the dresser in the girls’ room….  I am overwhelmed with the thought of trying to pull things together for a potential new beginning.  I could cross off a few things from my list if only I could stop pacing.

My oldest son, Elliott, who has pretty much always been far wiser than me, once said that anxiety can serve us well; it can keep us motivated.  But will it help me do right by my little flock?

I am worried about my chickens.  I am having trouble deciding which feeder to use, and whether I should use sand or pine shavings on the coop floor.  What if I am not able to keep it clean enough, and what if the eggs could make my friends or family sick?  Should I feed my new pullets medicated starter feed?  What if they get sick?  What if something gets in the coop?  What if they get mites?  Do I need to clean my boots each time I visit the coop?  What if my chickens eat the wild bird seed?  What if they fight among themselves?  Oh, wait, I think I may be able to handle that one…

As I have worried myself through my years of fostering, I know that I now feel better equipped to understand and take on situations that I may have felt differently about without some practical experience, and without having lived through some pretty unsettling scenarios.  Now I understand that the eight-year-old who is relieving herself anywhere but the toilet may be controlling the one thing that she actually can control.  I understand that the stash of candy wrappers and empty juice boxes shoved forgetfully out of sight between the wall and the bed are a function of a past where there may not have been enough to eat.  I know that investigations are part of this journey.  I understand, too, that I may never be the first best mom to some of my children, and that trust, in the world of foster care, is never a given.

Stacks of chicken books, trips to the feed store, advice from chicken-keeping friends, hours of perusing the online chicken group; all of these have given me much to ponder.  And still, there is the anxiety.

This late winter, two of my dear, longtime friends lost chickens to predators.  They adored their chickens and, I know, did their very best to care for them every day.  Sometimes, though, there are detours.  The bus stops where you didn’t plan to get off.  The worrying that we do steals away our gifts of this given moment.

Both of my friends are still keeping chickens.  I made it through my high school speech class, though I am still uncomfortable in front of a crowd.  We have even been through an investigation and have come out on the other side.  Though there is much that I do not understand about the children that come to stay with us, I can appreciate that their behaviors have meaning, and that they have come to teach me, if I am open to learn.

I hope my chickens will be able to tell how happy I am to welcome them home.  They will be scared, confused, and maybe even feisty.  But they will be mine to care for, for however long.  I hope that by the time I have gathered my first few eggs, my chicken anxiety will have subsided.  At least, that is, until I begin to worry about how I will tend to them in winter.

If I don’t pick up my chickens in twenty days, I will never know what chicken keeping will bring.  I will only continue to dream of the day that hens would populate my yard.  If I let my fears stand in the way, I will miss the moment.  If we come to the table with what we have, I do believe that must be better than staying behind.

Please keep a good thought for my chickens and all those who have gone before, for students that have anxiety about giving speeches, for all of the children waiting to know what their futures hold, and for all of our fears in hopes that they may become our opportunities.

Foster Parenting 101

My first son slept “like a baby” from his very early days.  As a well-rested young stay-at-home mom, I sometimes found myself making a bit of noise outside the nursery door by about nine in the morning, when I was ready for some company.

My second little boy did not follow this pattern, as he woke many times through the night for his first three years until, curiously, his baby brother, also prone to night waking, arrived.

I really didn’t mind getting up with the babies.  A mostly quiet house in the dark stillness of night offered a sense of peace, even serenity, which restored me much as if I had slept a full night.

I guess my little boys prepared me, but only in a small way, for the endless night wakings that were to come.  Now, the imagined demons in the night reach their accusatory hands toward me, and anxiety speeds through my insides as I wonder, “Am I enough?”

The dull ache in the hip of my nearly half-century old frame gives me pause as I move to the room at the west end of our farmhouse, listening outside the nursery door.  I am working hard at sleep training with this little one, because those every-two-hour wakings are no longer exactly enchanting.  I had read Margaret Wise Brown’s “Little Fur Family” (my miniature version bound in pretend fur) before putting him down tonight, and I am hoping the mother bear’s advice to “sleep warm in your fur, all night long” will do the trick.

Other than possibly my little fur-bound volume, though, there is really no book for any of this.

Over the years, people have asked many questions and made plenty of statements about fostering.  I am convinced that the vast majority of these questions and comments come from a place of curiosity, from well-intentioned people that are genuinely interested in our family.  I have decided to share some of these questions, along with the responses that I have to offer.

“Are they yours?”

They are my heartbeat; they are my priority.  They were born to another woman, and while they are with me, they are never completely mine, yet they are, without a doubt, my children.

“Why doesn’t she live with her real parents?” 

Many things relative to foster care are confidential.  It is not up to me to disclose this kind of information to the lady in line next to me at the bagel shop, but I can give you an idea.  As parents, we have much in common.  We love our children, and we work hard every day to do our best for them.  Sometimes, though, something happens…something unfortunate, something tragic,  something unexpected.  We may be just one “something” away from being unable to care for our own little ones.

“I could never give them back.”

I was reading through some of my old college files the other day.  Though the vision I had for myself twenty seven years ago is similar today, there are some detours.  I had seen myself pursuing higher education, with plans of fostering and adopting swirled together with one noble, starry-eyed wave of a magic wand, ending in a whole gaggle of little children.   I never made it to the PhD.   I did get the big family, but by no wave of a wand.  Rather, through the grief and pain of terminated parental rights, abandoned babies, and lives overcome by addiction and mental illness.   My family has also experienced the joy of working with birth parents whose children are returned home.  We don’t “give them back.”  We support them and love them as their fate is determined by the actions of others.   And yes, it is hard, whatever the outcome, but there can also be indescribable, unfathomable joy, and that truly is magic.

“How many are you going to have?”

If I had a crystal ball, I don’t think I would look.  At least, not yet.  No part of this is up to me.  We spend our days, and a call comes about a baby sibling to our son.  I wonder if I should pack up the bottles for good.  With my older children on the brink of adult life, I know the richness of motherhood, and while I learn so much from others, I sometimes forget what I used to know.

“Doesn’t this impact your marriage?”

Of course it does; however could it not?  We are destined for this, just as all the stars are numbered, there is reason and meaning behind all of our connections.  We could not do this alone.  Times are best when we work together.  After twenty-five years of marriage, we have learned ways to support one another.  Dan can tell when I have had too much; he knows when I am on the verge of tears, and my arms are sore from holding a writhing eight-year-old.  He gently takes over, and I can spend some mindless minutes peeling carrots.  I know, too, that if he slips upstairs to play his keyboard for a little while, this time will fill his soul so that he may be energized for the next round.

“Don’t you worry how this will affect your other kids?

I worry that my two-year-old will hear words that I hope he never repeats.  I worry that my daughter will learn certain things well before she should.  I worry that my children will see me cry, or that they will feel like I don’t have time for them.  I even worried about the cat when she was the subject of a bad experiment.  Then I see the collective joy of my little son and his baby brother as they chase each other around the kitchen.  I see the little sparkles shared between my girls as they talk about things that girls talk about.  I see in my grown sons a sense of compassion and understanding that can only come from having experienced this side of life.

We do this, plain and simple, because that is why we are here.

Today was a sunny Sunday, close to thirty degrees, and I felt only slightly guilty for calling an officer to help me install a car seat for our one-year-old.  I waited in my van outside the police station, and as he approached, I noticed that he looked slightly familiar.  I wondered if he was one of the many officers who had come to the scene during one of the four times this year we had to call for help for an out-of-control child.  He had done this many times before.  He flipped the seat over a couple times, adjusted a few latches, gave me some safety tips, and gave the car seat a final tug.  At one point, I looked sharply at this young policeman, beckoning him to pull up the details to my story.  He didn’t.  He did his job.  He was pleasant, kind, and unassuming toward the almost grandmotherly woman that needed help with the car seat for her baby.

There really are no answers to these questions.  We do what we do because out of all of this brokenness and sadness, there is a light.  I have seen it.  There is another day, another sun, and another chance for hope and healing.

There is, indeed, another story to be written.

And for now, “Sleep, sleep, my little fur child…”


There’s nothing like an impending monitoring visit from the state’s licensing worker to motivate me to clean my toilets.  I have long since stopped worrying about most of the details that swirled through my brain in a jumbled checklist during our early years of fostering, but, still today, the toilets have to be clean before I can open the door for what is hardly a white glove inspection.  We have had other people’s precious children in and out of our home for eleven years now, but someone still comes to check up on us every six months because, as I so often tell my children for so many things, “it’s the rule.”

All nine of my kids were here this Christmas, and in the aftermath, there’s plenty of work left for me.   And when the little one is sleeping and the house is peaceful, I actually like to clean my house.  Even the toilets.

With my vinegar-and-water rag in hand, I studied what was before me in the downstairs bathroom, which also happens to be a laundry room: thick, weathered pine trim defines the opening to a closet under the stairs.  The smell inside that secret space, though not clearly definable, had been off-putting enough when we first moved in that I had to hang a basket of nag champa, my best incense, to make it as inviting as the century-old light fixture mounted proudly to an inside wall of this closet.  As my rag met the edge of the pine, I was drawn to hints of yellow-orange which almost seemed to cry out to beg my awareness.  In that moment, I did see the sun.   Our farmhouse was built in 1877.  Surely the washy beige, almost colorless wall, and the sunnier shade of a yesterday which can barely be determined, are not the only two colors to have graced these bathroom walls.  More than likely, there were many, many more.  More than likely, too, is that this was something other than a bathroom at some point in history.

It has been almost a year since I decided to let my hair dread.  If I had known that this journey would involve so much crazy looping and a really wild, tangled mess on most days for upwards of a year, two, or three, I doubt I would have stuck with it.  I would have combed it out and continued to wish for what will, as I know now, take years to mature.  Instead, I have forged on, embracing the knots, and tying my hair back when I have to go somewhere or clean something (or when a licensing worker is coming to my house).  I have decided to let this happen, to release control, because in the end, I am pretty sure that I am not in control anyway.  We have to start somewhere.

I wonder, too, had Dan and I known that so many years into standing up for our kids, hauling files and articles to the schools, keeping vigil through the night, doing our best to be consistent when we needed to and flexible when we could…explaining, begging, tolerating the same verbal rants over and again, being pelted by words which imply that this is all our fault, feeling fragile and vulnerable in our own home, and crying millions of tears, all in hopes of washing away the layers of paint, of pain, that cover, even hide, the time underneath…the years of life lived…would we have had the courage to begin this journey?

My kids have opened up the inside of my soul, and in some ways I know that time has painted over much of what I used to be.

My active little sprite tries to eat soap and lotion with the same passion his brother had, and occasionally, at six, still has.  I thought I might be clever and have at least five seconds of peace in the bathroom yesterday, so I put a safety lock on the low cabinet with the extra body wash and bars of Irish Spring.  Once he realized he couldn’t open the door, he took a few Frankenstein-style steps in front of the toilet (where I sat)  and managed to pull down the makeshift curtain (which was actually a Winnie-the Pooh crib sheet), exposing me in all my vulnerability to anyone that decided to drive down our country road.   At least it’s not well-traveled.

It’s still me inside.  And unless you know me, you might not really know me.  I might not really know my kids; I may never get to see their brightest suns.  There’s much more to them, and to me, that anyone may ever know.  Yet I am at their mercy, as they are at mine.

The licensing worker was in and out of our home pretty quickly that day; we are good for another six months.  I wonder if he would have noticed if my toilets hadn’t been clean.  As I gathered the basket of laundry to take upstairs, I noticed my neatly folded underwear, two pair, on the laundry table, and I wondered if the state worker, too, had seen them.  At least they were clean.