On beauty and a word to mothers of sons

I took Arie shopping with me this weekend to get a few new spring clothes for myself. As we browsed the racks of clothing, he reached out from the cart to tug at various shirts and dresses, all the while exclaiming, "Mama!! Mama!!"

At home when he sees my clothes on the floor hanging in the closet he does the same thing. His little brain is making connections about this new life, including the fact that he now lives in a place where certain clothes belong to specific people (something he never saw in the orphanage where clothes belong to a common closet). It's mostly cute if not somewhat annoying when you're trying to browse the blouses at Target.

After the seventeenth, "Mama!! Mama!!" I finally stopped to give him my attention and I asked him, "Should Mama wear this?"

"Yeths!" he replied.

And then I asked him something very intentionally, "Would Mama look so beautiful in this?"

He looked at me quietly and I leaned in to whisper a secret. "Arie you should always tell the women in your life how beautiful they are."

"Oh! Mama ble-lo-fu!"(It's a hard word.)

One of my mothering goals is to raise a man who knows how to make a woman feel beautiful and it's because of the way being made to feel beautiful has impacted me.

Three years ago my Opa surprised my Oma with 75 roses for her 75th birthday!
Presented by three granddaughters; setting the bar high for future spouses!
Lately there's been a video by the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty floating around facebook in which a number of women are asked to describe themselves to a sketch artist. Their portrait is also drawn (by the same artist) as described by someone the women briefly met. When the women describe themselves the portraits come out harsh and pinched, a little fatter or a little sadder than they really are. In contrast, the portraits of the women drawn based on a description by a stranger come out kinder, happier, more forgiving. More beautiful. The conclusion, as stated by Dove: you're more beautiful than you think.

I thought the video was a poignant illustration of on obvious truth: women are usually too hard on themselves. I watched it, reflected for a few minutes, and went on with my day.

But then a facebook friend shared this article, citing a statistic that truly shocked me:

"Only four percent of women globally consider themselves beautiful."


Four percent? 

As in 96% of women do not consider themselves beautiful?

Even if we are looking at "the world's" perception of beauty: tall, thin, shiny hair, smooth skin, high cheekbones etc., surely more than 4% of women meet that criteria. Obviously the problem, like the Dove video suggests, is in our perception. Self perception.

When I look in the mirror I don't see the world's most stunning woman, but generally I am happy with the way I look. Sure I'd love to loose the 10 pounds I've put on in the last five years (but then again I've had a lot of really good food in the last five years and some of those pounds might be worth it...). I have good days when I'm happy with the sheen of my hair or the fullness of my lips and bad days when I'd really love to shrink my nose down a few sizes, but honestly if I had to check "yes" or "no" on a survey to answer the question, "Do you think you're beautiful?" I would check yes. I think I'm beautiful and I'm really surprised that only 4% of women are in this camp with me.

Now there's a lot to be said for inward beauty and focusing on the heart. That's where we should always start and where we should land. But you know we are physical people and it's important to feel beautiful outwardly, too.

As I've been reflecting on how I managed to get into this ridiculously small percentage of women who think they're beautiful, my thoughts keep returning to the men (boys? guys?) in my life who've told me about my beauty. I remember those ugly tween years and I remember the first time a guy ever said I was beautiful. He was the son of my mom's friend. He was much older than me and there was nothing romantic about it, but still- it changed my self perception forever.

My mom went to visit her friend Lyrinda for Christmas and took me along. As Lyrinda chatted with my mom about "boring" things, her son Donny compassionately struck up a conversation with my 13-year-old self about something non-memorable. Maybe Christmas plans or the weather.  Two days later I was sitting in the middle row of our van, when my mom suddenly told me from the passenger seat, "Oh Jillian! I talked to Lyrinda on the phone last night and she said Donny commented that you are becoming so beautiful."

Beautiful. Wow. Somebody saw the way I looked and thought I was beautiful. It was almost beyond comprehension. But it was true.

While I didn't have a long string of beaus though high school there was always a boy or two to tell me I was beautiful. I was one of the lucky ones who didn't get told that as a manipulation tactic. Mostly. As an adult I now attribute this to their mothers, but they were good boys- and now good men I'm sure- who told me from a place of genuine affection.

Today I'm married to a man who thinks I'm beautiful and has never said a negative word about those extra pounds. He thinks I'm beautiful in a grab my butt at the kitchen sink and kiss me now Song of Solomon kind of way. Thank God.

I bet there are a dozen or more tactics to take and issues to address when it comes to addressing the 96% of women who don't think they're beautiful. One of them is teaching our sons to speak honestly and truthfully about the beauty of the women around them. They will practice on us as mothers. They will learn with their sisters. Cousins. Friends. And one day, girlfriends, fiances, and wives.

I want to raise a man who knows how to make a woman feel beautiful. Some of you might read this and ask what about intelligence and personality and giftedness? I say yes! to all that as well, but nothing about being being strong and capable negates beauty. To be smart and kind and beautiful- that's what I want for myself and that's what I want for the next generation of women. 

No woman needs to be the most beautiful but we all need one person to think we are. To those of us who are raising little boys, let's raise them to be men who know how to make a woman feel beautiful. Men who know how to complement, how to make their girlfriends walk taller, fiances smile brighter, and wives want to check "yes" box in the are you beautiful survey.

It's not the whole answer, but it's a piece.

Maybe I'll age as well as my grandmothers have but if not then someday I'll be old, saggy, and gray; I hope by then I'll still feel beautiful, especially when I look in my husband's eyes. By then perhaps Arie will have married and I'll have a daughter-in-law. I hope she grows up with men speaking beauty into her life. I hope she hears about it every day from my son. Maybe I'll even get lucky and hear her tell me thank you. :-)



Discernment, calling, and waiting on the Lord

I don't know how people live in Alaska and cope with the long, dark days of winter. We've had an awfully cold and rainy (and sometimes snowy) April here and I am struggling. Today we experienced the first truly beautiful spring day of the year and while I spend every minute I could outside, I know the rest of the week is going to be cold and wet and I've felt that fact breathing in my ear like an annoying coworker reading over my shoulder. With coffee breath on top.


If any of my readers like in a warm, sunny location I would like to come visit for a while to escape the eternal winter that seems to have my state captive. Pleaseandthankyou.

While we've been stuck inside and struggling to find things to do with ourselves, our minds have at least been busy. John and I are entering a season of discernment for many areas of life, not the least of which is asking God what's next in terms of growing our family. I hate that it's not easy for us. Today I spend a long time wondering what it must be like for couples to decide they want another baby and then just get pregnant. I imagine it must give you an incredible rush. I mean you decide to add a life to your family and then... you do. That is about the most powerful thing a person can do: bring a life into the world. What a thing to control. I know of course that no one is really in control, but the experience of fertility must at least give an initial feeling of control, whether that be right or wrong.

If I could snap my fingers and be fertile you bet I would- in a heartbeat- but I will say that one blessing that comes with infertility is that the steps toward building a family are- for us- absolutely covered in prayer. Long prayer, angry prayers, joyful prayers, listening prayers, talking prayers, breath prayers, questioning prayers. Every kind of prayer you can imagine. Whether the steps are toward fertility treatments or toward adoption- they are painstakingly intentional. Entirely deliberate.

All the intentionality and deliberation involved comes down to the question of calling. How is God calling us to build our family?

We're swimming in that question right now.

It's a question of choosing between two very good choices. A choice between medicine and doctors who, as a good friend once said, work at the God-pleasing task of making life and the choice to nurture and bless a life, already made. Even if the answer is both, there is still that pesky question of timing.

Of one thing I am certain: God will make his will clear to us in his timing. Dealing with the ebb and flow of faith and doubt in the meantime is the hard part. But then again- its also the part that drives us to prayer.

I share these thoughts very simply because I know I'm not alone and I want someone out there to know that (s)he's not alone either.

The coming months and years will reveal our path and I know I will one day look back on this post and smile with the same sort of of course that I now feel when I look back at our journey to our son.

Be still my soul / thy God doth undertake / to guide the future as he has the past. 

To those who are facing big questions about the future: let's agree to let the questions drive us to prayer. Let's be thankful for the way they make us live intentionally. Let's rejoice in the fact that we serve a God who guides our lives by calling us forward into his will- never aimlessly, always with purpose and direction. And let's look to his faithfulness in the past and rest in the truth that in that same way, he will guide our feet forward.



The blossoming

This morning we had our second post-placement visit for our adoption agency. Also this weekend I've finally been working on printing pictures from the last year and getting them in an album. It has been a day full of reflection and I have been amazed as I think about how Arie has blossomed.
In all our pre-adoption preparation we read a lot about the negative impact of neglect, institutionalization, and loss on young children. Between the harsh realities, however, almost every article contained one hopeful line with the same message. Over and over again we read it: children are incredibly resilient.

There are always scars, to be sure, but the vast majority of children who are adopted after being institutionalized will go on to lead healthy and fulfilling lives. I once heard an adoptive mother say, "I know my children will have issues stemming from their adoption, but hey- we all have issues and at least my kids will know where to start with theirs."

We went through the what ifs in our adoption too. When you adopt a child with an unknown health history- historically, prenatally, and developmentally- there are so may things to worry about. At the end of the day we came to rest on two truths:

1. God will equip us to deal with whatever issues come our way.
2. Children are resilient.

We keep Arie's health history private and while I don't want to give the impression that we came home with a little boy completely unscathed by his past, I do want to share that both have been true: God has equipped us to deal with issues that have come our way and Arie has proven himself to be incredibly resilient.
He is learning more and more words every day and has begun to string three words together in a sentence. After 4 months of reminding him about manners, just this week he began saying "Thank you!" on his own. Everytime I offer him a snack or snap the plastic barnyard door on the Little People set (an hourly occurrence over here), he smiles and sings, "Ta-ku Mama!"  You're welcome baby. 

A lot of people ask me if he still speaks any Russian and the answer is no, he doesn't. He did not speak that much even when he was in Russia, so he has not really had to replace Russian with English as much as he just learned to speak (in English). I've tried asking him some simple questions in Russian- using phrases I know he used to understand- and he does not show any signs that he knows what I am saying. Sometimes when children as adopted from other countries they will reject their former language as a way of clinging to their new life, so it is hard to discern whether he is ignoring my Russian questions or whether he legitimately does not understand. In either case, he only uses one Russian word now: mishka which means little brown bear. He uses it for all his stuffed bears.
Some of you have commented that he seems taller and yes you are correct! When dressed him in Moscow we had him in 18-24 month size clothing and we had to cuff his pants. Now he's perfectly in 2T sizing and still shooting up! His weight has stayed about the same (I think he's gained a half pound?) so he looks a lot slimmer. As much as I hate to say goodbye to his chubby belly and baby thighs, it is a true gift to see him growing and thriving at home so I praise God for it! Every once and a while he stands in a mature way or makes an adult-like gesture and I feel like I am catching a glimpse of the man he's growing into. It takes my breath away and motivates me to do whatever it takes to teach him to be a good man, kind, strong, romantic, hard working, loyal. Just like his father.
In terms of his attachment to us, it continues to strengthen and grow.  While he was pretty affectionate during every day life from the beginning, we really worked hard to get him to enjoy our affection when was upset about something (either after falling or after being disciplined for example). Our tactic was simple: when he was upset, we would just ask him, "Do you need a hug?" At first he would shake his head no, but we gave him a quick one anyway. Sometimes he would be stiff and other times he would squirm away. After a while he wouldn't say yes or no, he would just stand there and we would hug him for longer. Eventually he would nod his head yes and he would give him a long hug, rub his back and kiss his cheeks.  Now he says yes and wraps his little arms tightly around us for comfort. A true sign of attachment! For a little boy who spent two and a half years comforting himself, this is a big deal.

More and more of his little personality is coming to light as well, which is probably a combination of both his being more at home with us and him just maturing as he approaches his third birthday in June. We are so happy to finally have someone musical in our family! John and I cannot sing, dance, or play an instrument with any kind of grace. We both appreciate music and dance deeply we just can't do it ourselves. John signed himself up for piano lessons in college but on the third lesson his teacher told him- and I'm not making this up- that she didn't think he could teach him because he was so tone deaf! Ha! Anyway, Arie loves to sing and he spends half his day dancing around the house.  When we eat dinner John usually has background music playing and Arie loves to sit in his booster and "sit-dance" to the tune.  Here's a little clip of his skillz (he also likes to make his face dance as you will see):

Despite John's comment to the contrary, he did not learn those moves from me. His orphanage had a "music class" so I think he's showing us what he learned there. Adorable.

It is fitting that he is blossoming so beautifully in the springtime because watching for signs of his attachment has been just like watching a flower bloom. You see the green stem poking out of the ground and then wait for what seems like an eternity as it grows taller and forms a tiny bud. You check it day after day and it remains green until one day- there it is. A beautiful bloom open to the world! It's been like that with Arie too. Small, steady growth for a long period of time and then suddenly something just clicks and he bursts into bloom! He is a resilient little guy.
All this and we're only (nearly) five months in. I can't wait to see how God continues to bless our son as we enter spring and summer!



Our new Russian heritage and a spring farm trip.

Last fall this article on parenting lasts went viral. Did it pop up on your news feed? The author, Devon Corneal, writes wistfully about the mostly universal truth that as our children grow up, their lasts often slip by unnoticed. We remember their firsts- first steps, first words, first wave- but we can't name their lasts- last time she jumped in the pool shouting watch me!, last time he needed help with his zipper, last time she hugged your knees from behind... we know when they're gone but we can't remember exactly when they left.

Arie came home with his cute little Russian nod and "da!" It slowly morphed into, "ya!" and then, "yea!" and just this week he's left that behind in favor of a fully decisive "yes." It comes out with a little baby lisp so it's more like, "yeths!" which, you can imagine, melts me to the floor.

As much as I love his "yeths," though, I'm surprised at the sad twinges I'm feeling as he leaves his Russian behind. The language fades away and the culture does too.

I'll admit that when someone first asked me how we plan to incorporate Arie's Russian heritage into our family life, I didn't really know what to say. Over time we made deliberate choices like keeping his Russian name (Artem), hanging a Russian map in his room, and working Russian recipes into our meal planning. As much as I love eating beets and cabbage, (as I'm typing this I'm realizing that could be read sarcastically. It's not! I really do love them.) it feels like it's not really enough.

Of course it isn't. Nothing can really fill in the gap that happens when you move from one culture to the next, can it? My grandparents immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands after WWII and as I've been working through all these thoughts and feelings about Arie loosing his heritage, I've been thinking a lot about the four of them. They are all Dutch parents who raised Canadian kids. I imagine they experienced some of those same sad twinges I've been experiencing as they watched their children grow up into a different culture than the one they could've would've should've grown up in, save for WWII.


My parents are proud of their heritage. And so are we grandkids. We don't really spend a lot of time wishing we would have grown up in Holland. Actually, we received the strange blessing of mixed culture. My parents were taught the Dutch language, simple, frugal European cooking, a strong work ethic, and passed down a the heritage of Reformed faith. They kiss each other on the cheeks to say hello. They passed down much of what they got to us as well, although not the Dutch language. My parents used that as their secret way of talking "behind our backs" when we were right in front of their faces. They did pass down their Dutch way of speaking very frankly about... everything, which I used to alienate a few more nuanced Americans when I first moved here. Still trying to figure out if that frankness is a blessing or a curse.

What I'm doing now is embarking on a new post-adoption journey, a journey in which I seek to discover the best parts of Russian culture and incorporate them into our family. In a way it's something I've already been doing as I raise my son in the States, as a third generation Dutch Canadian. I want him to say please and thank you and excuse me a million times per day like a good Canadian. I want him to drink tea as if it's water, like my grandparents. As for his Russian heritage: I want him to value family like, as one of my facebook likers recently said, "the mafia, but without the murder." I want him to be raised with an appreciation for the arts, which means I'll be getting an education myself! And maybe most of all I want to take on that Russian hospitality. In my reading one thing I've learned about Russians is that there is always, always, room for one more at the table. No matter how small the apartment or meager the meal- friends are welcome here. 

As I educate myself in all things Russian please feel free to offer me suggestions: books, articles, documentaries, moves, painters, etc. I'm hungry for it all! 


One thing that I really should appreciate being Canadian and having a Russian son, is cold winters but I will admit, hard as I try, by the time it gets to March I want to cry about the weather. I am beyond ready for the earth to warm up again. It was still cold this week, but sunny so I was feeling at least like I wasn't going to die, but then Saturday came and it is cloudy. And windy. And cold. 

To save me from my winter weather desperation, John kindly suggested we go see the spring animals at a nearby farm. (The farm exists just for this purpose.)  The sight of fluffy little chicks, baby ducks, and two week old calves is helping me remember that winter is not eternal. Spring is indeed here and summer is on the way

Arie was amazed, as usual. There was lots of him pointing and yelling, "OH BOY!" 

I know they already say that everything is new in the eyes of a child, but seriously everything is even newer in the eyes of a recently adopted toddler. His world was so small for two and a half years and in the past 4 months it has expanded so fast you'd think he'd be knocked right off his feet! But this kids LOVES life. He loves going outside and exploring new places. (Even the mention of a trip to the grocery store sends him into a fit of excited laughter as he RUNS to get his shoes on!) 

Each time we got to a new animal Arie would stand by the cage, listening to its noise and then shout it back. My favorite was the roosters crow. "KA-DOOOOOOO!!!" he yelled. 

So crazy adorable. 

We just happened to be there when the calves needed to be fed. The calf must have been so huge from Arie's vantage point, but he bravely stepped forward to give it a quick pet. 

Since it was still so cold and windy out (grumble grumble) we had to leave after about an hour and Arie bawled his eyes out, begging for "moy mam-ni-mals!" (more animals!)  Oh my heart. I love listening to him learn to speak! 

Happy weekend from this guy: 



10 ways to care for orphans [without adopting]

This is a question I get asked a lot: How can I answer the biblical call to orphan care if I am not able to adopt?

God does not hide his will from us and if you are someone who has earnestly sought God's will concerning adoption and he has not led you to adopt (or has not led you to adopt right now), there are other very valuable ways that you can serve the most vulnerable children in our world today.  If you have a heart for orphan care- whether or not you are able to adopt- here are ten invitations to orphan care for you to pray over:

Original photo by flickr user Moving Mountains Trust, creative commons.
1. Host an orphan in your home: This is one of my favorite ways to get involved in orphan care without adopting. New Horizons is an international orphan hosting program. US families host children for 4-6 weeks in their homes and pour love into them. The children see what it is like to live in a family and have opportunities and they have their "horizons" broadened. The goal is not for the host family to adopt the child, although sometimes either the host family or family friends will go on to adopt after the experience. The goal is to show the child a life other than the one he knows and give hope for a better future. Please take a moment to sign up for the photo listings and ask yourself if you have 4-6 weeks to give to one of these children.

2. Get your church connected to an orphanage:  I found our about the organization The Hope Epidemic through an instagram hash tag of all ways (although I #cantrememberwhichone) and I am so impressed with what I've seen through them. Their mission is to connect American Evangelical Churches with orphanages all around the world. They want these churches to connect in order to share the gospel, to build relationships, to better the orphanage environments, and to advocate for the adoption of children in the orphanages. I've always wondered what it would look like if the church arose to take care of our orphan crisis once and for all. The Hope Epidemic is trying to do just that.

3. Donate on behalf of children with special needs: Reece's Rainbow is a Down Syndrome adoption ministry. You can look at pictures of waiting children with Down Syndrome or other special needs on this site donate to a specific child's adoption, whether or not a family has been found for them.

4. Support an orphan graduate program: There are a few different orphan graduate support programs out there but Hearts for Orphans caught my attention because it is run by adoptive parents and shares the gospel with orphan graduates. When orphans age out of the system most turn to crime, prostitution or suicide simply because they don't have any support systems or life skills. Orphan graduate programs work to equip teens with life skills, like cooking and budgeting, and help them find meaningful work. Hearts for Orphans works in the Ukraine. If you have a specific country on your heart, do a google search for "orphan graduate support" + "country." If you can't afford to donate to these ministries, consider volunteering for one in your area! Organizations like these always need volunteers to do tasks like photocopying, putting mailers together or even cleaning.

5. Advocate for a specific child: Project Hopeful is an organization that educates and advocates for the adoption of children with HIV and other special needs. Their FIG program (Family In the Gap) exists to match families with orphans overseas. As as a FIG family you would pray for, sponsor, and fundraise for the adoption of a specific child. You can also be matched with an unadoptable child (in their home country's foster care system) and you would support the foster family as they care for the child. This is such a cool program and I love how you can get your whole family involved. I can picture families with children working together to brainstorm fundraising ideas (summer lemonade stand??) to help with the child's someday adoption costs.

6. Help parents and families in crisis: Safe Families is a movement by Bethany Christian Services that serves families who need safe, temporary care for their children. From the website: "This network of host families help parents who need to temporarily place their children due to unmanageable or critical circumstances... this temporary care for children in need gives parents time to establish stability in their homes. Can you open your home to a family going through a troubled time?" There is a video on their site that's worth watching if this movement interests you at all.
7. Sponsor a child: Most of us are aware of these programs that help provide food, water, and education for children in developing countries. If you have a heart specifically for orphans, you can use Compassion International's search tool to find and sponsor a child who has been orphaned. You can also select country or special need if you desire. I've heard of families sponsoring children who share birth dates with little ones. Some couples honor the loss of a pregnancy by sponsoring a child who was born around the time of the expectant due date of the baby they lost. When you sponsor a child you have the opportunity to do more than just give money; you can correspond with the child, send gifts, and share the love of Christ with her! 

8. Give to an adopting family: Whether you're able to write a $500 check or sell knit-wares online for cash, donating to a family who wants to adopt is a much needed and very fulfilling way to answer the call to orphan care. If you are wondering how much a $30 donation could help just take a look at my son and know that he didn't come home via a few enormous donations. He came home though a ton of small ones. Every.penny.matters.  If you have no money or wares to sell you can help by offering your services. Maybe they need babysitting or volunteers at a fundraiser. Maybe they need someone to mow their lawn because they just don't have time between working and completing the home study. If you look hard enough I know you can find a way to help!

9. Send care packages to orphanages: In the end of January my church asks all the congregation members to use one Sunday for an act of service. This year our small group used the Sunday to put together a care package for Arie's former orphanage. If you know anyone who has adopted, consider sending a care package to their child's former baby home or foster home.

10. Support Anti-human trafficking efforts: Because orphans are so vulnerable and too often without protection, they are at increased risk of being trafficked.Take a minute to visit WAR International's website and view the video on their about page to learn more. 

If you've been involved with any of these organizations or have another organization or idea you'd like to share please join in on the conversation in the comments below or via my facebook page.
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