Shaping Identity: This Beautiful Mess

by Julie Riddle

I have a child for you. In an instant these six words dismantled my long-held identity as a woman who had chosen to not have children. (On my bookshelves you will find a copy of Beyond Motherhood: Choosing a Life without Children. Its pages are heavily highlighted. That book got me.) 

I have spent much of my adult life recovering from childhood trauma and coping with related health problems, and trying to maintain the ground I had gained and protecting myself from further suffering. By my mid-forties, I had completed years of counseling, and had earned an MFA degree, published a memoir, held a satisfying job as a writer and editor and satisfying editorial positions with two literary journals, and had been happily married for more than two decades. Plus, my house was beautifully tidy. Since I worked part time, I spent many afternoons writing and reading. (I also spent a lot of time ruminating on past sorrows.) I treasured these hours alone in my tidy, quiet, safe home.

But in recent years, as my birthdays hurtled toward fifty, I began to feel a subtle restlessness. The years ahead seemed to yawn, predictable and aimless. I was surprised one day to realize that the life I had constructed and defended with fear-driven zeal had begun to feel empty and – here’s a word I never used and don’t like – boring.

I should probably also mention that one June afternoon during this time, I sat in my quiet, tidy house, scrolling Facebook on my phone, and watched a video about a man who, in young adulthood, had a vivid dream that he would one day parent a daughter named Autumn. The man later married, and when he and his wife discussed having children, she said she had always loved the name Autumn. The couple couldn’t conceive, so they adopted a little girl who, when they met her – well, you can guess her name. 

At the video’s end, I laid my head on the kitchen counter and sobbed. I couldn’t understand why. Maybe it was the poignant music that had been playing in the background. Or maybe it was – what? Grief, loss, longing? Something deeply buried, welling up and spilling.

Two days after I watched the video, my husband told me he wanted to parent a child. With me.

Well. That kicked off a summer of hard, often painful conversations, sleepless nights, and, for me, intense fear and anguished prayer. I did not want to parent a child. Could not! Would not. Not after all I’d suffered and struggled to overcome. No. I was, and would remain, a non-mom.

My husband and I kept talking, and I kept praying (pleading, really – begging God to fix this disaster. Now, please). Toward the end of the summer, in the midst of praying/pleading one afternoon, God spoke to me those six words: I have a child for you

God has spoken to me three times in my life, each during periods of deep emotional or physical struggle, each time as I was praying. Each unique statement was brief, arose in my mind, and administered instant and lasting peace and relief. The statements were more like commands that delivered an underlying message: Take heart, and trust me.

I have a child for you. These words communicated that the hardened path I had forged and fought to protect was no longer – had never been – my own. Something had been going on, and was about to go down, that was far different than anything I’d ever had in mind.

Over the next couple of days, I toyed with the idea of ignoring what God had told me. I could just dismiss it, hope God wouldn’t notice, and keep scrambling to restore my safe life. But that’s not what I did. Instead, I felt led to tell my husband that I could try – try – to foster a child.

Please note that when God said he had a child for me, he did not also say, No worries – this’ll be easy-peasy! Becoming licensed foster parents was not easy-peasy. Fostering our first child – a 10-year-old-boy (I have a child for you) – was not easy-peasy. But my husband and I cried the day our foster son returned to his birth family, after he had lived with us for two months. And this first child opened my heart to a second.

Fostering a second child, this time a nine-year-old boy, was not easy-peasy, either. But last April, two weeks after I turned forty-nine, we adopted him. (I have a child for you.) My son is getting used to calling me Mom, and I am getting used to answering to the name and living into my new identity. 

These days, the future no longer feels aimless and predictable, and I rarely think about the past; each morning I cannonball into the chock-full present. I write and read in brief snatches. The shelf holding my Beyond Motherhood book now also holds books on fostering, adoption, attachment, setting boundaries with kids, child development, and parenting strategies.  

My home, I’m relieved to find, is still safe. But now it is a refuge for a child too. My home, however, is no longer quiet. Our rooms are often filled with shrieks from a boy romping with a puppy, streams of questions and observations from the boy, and laughter (much of it my own). And my home is no longer tidy. You should see the sports gear, school gear and play gear strewn from here to there, not to mention the paw prints and small handprints constantly smeared on our sliding-glass door. What a beautiful mess.

Julie Riddle is the author of the memoir The Solace of Stones: Finding a Way through Wilderness (University of Nebraska Press). She is the craft-essay editor for Brevity and the creative-nonfiction editor for Rock & SlingShe works as senior development writer at Whitworth University and is editor of Whitworth Today magazine.

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