24: The Gifts God Gives
Stories in this episode: A missionary visits a recent convert in jail and leaves with a crazy new plan for her post-mission life; Erin gets a crash course in motherhood when she takes four small children to a restaurant for the first time by herself; Years of unrequited love in her dating life prepare Megan for a surprising twist when she becomes a mother.
KaRyn: Welcome to This is the Gospel, an LDS Living podcast where we feature real stories from real people who are practicing and living their faith every day. I'm your host, KaRyn Lay.
I never intended to come home from my mission in West Virginia with a foster child, but that's exactly what happened. And how that happened has everything to do with my mother.
My mission, like so many others, was full of emotional and spiritual ups and downs and to be honest, very little of it felt the way that stories and histories of missions make it seem. But when we started to teach Catherine the gospel, everything about it was exactly what you imagine a mission would be like.
She was ready for the gospel from the minute that she said her first prayer to the day she was baptized. I just honestly had never met anyone who was so excited to learn about prophets and to be a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
After I was transferred out of the area, Catherine and I kept in touch through letters. This was the early 2000s and email was still kind of a novelty. So we wrote letters back and forth and one day as I was nearing the end of my mission, I got a letter from Catherine. It was very clearly from her because it had her handwriting and it had her name on it, but it also had a stamp on the front from a correctional facility in a city that I didn't recognize.
Though the exact circumstances were a little bit fuzzy, the letter said that Catherine had been incarcerated for something that happened a long time ago and she told me that she would be in jail for a while.
A couple of weeks later, we had this big sisters' conference in that area where Catherine was serving time and I asked my mission president if I could go visit with her and he gave us permission. So my companion and I went to the jail and I remember driving up to that facility and parking the car and going in through the metal detectors. And when we got in there, there was this big wall of glass and it had little holes poked into it so that you could talk right it about mouth level. It wasn't like in the movies where they had booths where you call on a phone but we stood we stood there and waited for Catherine to come.
And as the row of women in their bright orange jumpsuits turned the corner, I just started weeping because there was my Catherine—my dear friend my sister in the gospel—in a prison outfit. And she came up to me and we kind of laughed cried because that's what we do. And she told me all about what was happening in her life. Well, Catherine had a 7-year-old son named Cody and Cody was just the love of her life. He was energetic and is so smart and so cute he had this blond hair that stuck up in the back almost like Alfalfa.
And as we were talking, I said, "Hey, Catherine, what about Cody? Where is he right now?" And she said, "Oh, well my roommate has him but she's not going to be able to take care of him forever and he's probably going to go into foster care." And of course that broke my heart. And I said, "Well, what are you gonna do?" And she looked at me and without skipping a beat she said, "Well, I was hoping you would take him."
I opened my mouth and I heard myself say, "I will." And as the words came out of my mouth, I felt a thousand thunderbolts of lightning moving through me. And in that moment I knew it was the exact right thing for me to do even though it made absolutely no sense at all. I was 23 years old and had no job and nowhere to live. And Catherine, who is kind of in shock that I even said that I would do this, said "Well, what about your family? What will your mother say?"And I looked right at her and I said, "Catherine, I know what my mom will say."
When I got back to the mission home, I told the whole story to the mission president, who at this point was pretty used to my antics. And so all he said was, "Oh Sister Daily, call your mother." So I got on the phone and my mom picked up.
I told her what was happening. I told her what I had felt and then I told her what I had said and I knew that I was asking for something that was kind of a big deal. Although I'd graduated from college before my mission, I had a liberal arts degree and absolutely no contacts in Portland, Oregon, where my family was living. So a job and a place of my own were gonna take a while to secure. And to top it all off, my dad had recently been laid off from his job and so I knew that money and resources were tight. I was asking my parents to help me care for a little boy that they had never met for a woman they knew nothing about at a time when nothing in their own lives felt even remotely secure and my mom said exactly what I knew she would say she said. "KaRyn, we are our brother's keeper. Bring him home."
There's something powerful about that gift that my mother gave to me with those words. Though my time as a foster parent to Cody was so full of difficult things, I never doubted that we were supported by my family and I never doubted that we were exactly where we should be doing exactly what we should be doing.
It's also not lost on me that I was a 23-year-old who knew exactly what my mother would say when she was faced with a decision like this. I vowed then and there to be that kind of mother to my own children. A mother whose actions and words would create a bond of faith with her loved ones, a bond that would help them know exactly where I stood in relation to following the Savior.
Listen, mothering is a tough business but if there's anything that's clear to me it's that our Father in Heaven wants us to feel supported and loved during these difficult things.
In today's episode, we have stories that celebrate the gifts that God gives to us in our efforts to raise and love our tiny humans, whether we birthed them ourselves or brought them home on an airplane from West Virginia. Our first story comes from Erin, a self-proclaimed favorite aunty whose experiences with motherhood led her to an important discovery about the gifts that God gives to those of us who are waiting for that role to come to us. Here's Erin.
Erin: There was a time I desperately wanted to be an actress.
So when it came time for the sixth-grade play, I was the first to sign up for auditions. The play was a melodrama and it had some really colorful stereotypical characters. There was an evil villain, a handsome hero, and the part I wanted most of all: there was the young, pretty damsel in distress. She was tied up to a train track and everything it was very exciting for my sixth-grade self.
I felt great after the auditions. I was pretty confident that I showed my talent to the director. And a few days later, the cast list was posted and to my delight, I got a speaking role. Now, to my dismay, it wasn't the heroine. I was given the role of the mother. Specifically, I was the rich, snooty mother of the hero. I was disappointed. It was not what I wanted. But at the same time, it was the first play I ever auditioned for. I got a speaking role and I got to wear pearls and a fancy dress and one of those fur stoles. Fake fur, don't worry. And it turned out to be great fun. But still, it wasn't exactly what I wanted.
The next year, I auditioned for the seventh-grade play. This time it was a play where almost all the characters in the play are children. The role I was offered was "mother number two."
Eighth grade was the year everything was going to change for me. Our school put on a play that centered on the lives of four daughters. Four. I was so excited. My audition went really well. I confidently walked up to the casting notice and saw that my name was second on the list, which I think was a really good sign. Usually, that means you have a pretty good role if you're high up on the list. I look to the left and I saw the words Mrs. Smith. I wasn't going to play any one of the daughters, but I was going to play their mother, Mrs. Smith. Yet again, I was denied the opportunity to play the role I wanted because I would only ever be seen and cast as a mother. So I stopped auditioning for plays after that.
Fast forward a couple of decades and I do reflect on this experience with some irony. As much as I didn't want to be seen as the mother in junior high, I mean who does, I longed for that experience of motherhood as a woman.
Being a mother was something I always planned on and just assumed would happen. It didn't even occur to me that it wouldn't. But, for reasons that I won't get into here, it hasn't happened. The role of a mother has not been given me. But one thing I do know, God grants beauty among the ashes of the hard things that we deal with. In my case, I know my heart has been expanded in a unique way to love and care for the seven nieces and nephews I have. I have really special, intense relationships with them. I am more than a friend. I'm not quite a mom to them but I'm more than just a woman in their lives, someone that they can rely on. I get to spend tons of time with them. They know how I feel about them, that I will do anything for them. But I mean, lots of women are aunts, and I do, the ones that I talk to that are single that don't have children and I have experienced similar feelings, which is that your heart really does expand in this way. You do you feel very passionately and deeply about these children. And my sister knows this and my sister-in-law knows this. And in my case, I'm super grateful to them for being so generous with giving me that time and that role within their with their children. They haven't been threatened by it. They've been welcoming of it. They're grateful for it.
So recently, I watched my sister's four children for a weekend while their parents were out of town. While I am an exceptional aunt, I feel that, I can also own up to my inexperience in caring for children full time. So my nieces begged me to eat dinner in a restaurant that night on the first night I was watching them. So I naively said, "Yeah, that sounds like a great idea." The parents out there probably could tell what happens next. But it was not a great idea. I walked into the restaurant with four kids under the age of nine in tow. As the cool aunt, I told the kids they could order whatever they wanted. This was not smart. Faced with too many decisions they held up the line. The line started getting longer and longer while the 2-year-old in my arms started getting fussy. Eventually, we ordered and settled at the table, but settled wasn't really an accurate description because kids were getting up on the benches and running around and putting soda in their water cups.
It was total chaos. I was trying to get the 2-year-old into a booster sea and he just would not sit. I was at my wit's end. I was embarrassed. I could feel the other people in the restaurant looking at us. The 2-year-old, I don't know what happened, but he had lost his mind. He just started sobbing and he wanted out.
And I, for a second, put him on the floor, which was also a terrible decision. And he started running down the hallway into the back of the restaurant and I ran and grabbed him. And I was able to carry him halfway back down the hallway when he flopped down. And I don't know how he did it, but it felt like he gained 20 pounds all of a sudden, in an instant. And I could not carry him anymore and he just sank onto the floor and went into full meltdown sobbing. At that moment, the food came.
The food was done and so I had the oldest girl go pick up the food. She grabs it and put it on the table while I tried to get the 2-year-old off the floor, begging pleading. And I put him on my lap and I tried to put pizza in his mouth because I thought that would help. And it didn't. And I finally made the executive decision to pack up and go back to the house. The girls, of course, were not happy with this decision. They were perfectly fine with the chaos, but we had to do it. So I gave the oldest her brother told her to go to the car, I'll pick up everything else.
So in the middle of this chaos, I make eye contact with the couple that was sitting next to us who I frankly had been avoiding the whole time because I was so embarrassed. And I got smiles from both of them and at this point, the husband of the couple says to me, "You're doing a really great job." And at this moment, I realize that the couple suspected my situation was likely different than it is. They thought perhaps I was a frazzled mother, that I was single or at least in that moment did not have my partner. And my first instinct was to correct them and tell them, "Oh,I'm not really their mother. I'm there aunt and only six hours into watching them so I don't know how great I'm doing a job I'm doing." But instead, I just smiled and said, "Thank you," really genuinely because I've felt it. I decided to just take it in. Within minutes of getting home, the 2-year-old was happy as can be and completely forgot any of the trauma that he felt from moments before at the restaurant. The sisters sat down and eat the now slightly cold pizza. I could not forget the trauma of the restaurant. I don't know that I ever will.
But later that night, what helped was getting a card from the 4-year-old that said, "Best aunt ever." The 6-year-old told me, "I love you." The 4-year-old again told me, "You're my best friend." I actually believe her, like all those things I think were actually really sincere. I've made her confirmed the best-friend status several times since so I'm pretty sure it's true.
Now, those moments they don't erase what I still feel and the rawness and the difficulty that still is there. It doesn't heal that. But I heard a talk several years ago at Time Out for Women by Laurel Day where she talked about the Savior making moments and situations enough for us. I have had many situations and many moments in my life, especially with these kids, where my situation, where my role has been made enough for me. I didn't choose it. I wouldn't have chosen it, but it is enough.
I'm not pretending like it's all done for me. There's more that is in store for me. I know that I feel that. But for now, what I have and what I've been given has been made enough. It's beautiful and it's not something that is sad. It's something that is really wonderful. I'm really special.
And at some point I'll understand the virtue of being given every possible mother role in junior high but I'm grateful for every role I've been given in my life, including those and I'm looking forward to whatever the Lord has in store for me next.
KaRyn: That was Erin Hallstrom. You might recognize Erin's name from the credits of this podcast. She's the executive producer as well as the general manager of LDS Living and we're so grateful that she's willing to share all of her stories with us.
And while she says that her favorite aunt status is self-proclaimed, we have it on good authority that the littles in her life absolutely feel that way about her. I also heard that TOFW talk from Laurel Day about God making where we are and what we have enough. I'd never thought of it as a gift of motherhood before but now I can totally see it. And don't we all need that gift? Whether we are in the trenches of motherhood every day or jumping in every other weekend with step kids or trying desperately to keep up with the grandkids, that run circles around our creaky legs. We all need to be given the gift of it's enough and the good news is that we already have. I know this might sound obvious but I think it bears repeating because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, the true finisher of our faith, what we lay on the altar will always be enough.
Our next story from Megan unfolds in a truly unexpected way as she traces the origins of the many gifts that she's been given to be the perfectly imperfect mom that her kids need. Here's Megan.
Megan: The common thread that started becoming apparent in the years of my dating was that those relationships I have that I invested in I invested in thoroughly, and also I was the person who cared most in the relationship. I recognized that and I didn't enjoy it. I prayed about it all the time but I would sometimes ask my father, "Why does this keep happening to me?" And, "I'm not particularly happy." I would pray about ending the relationship or just pray about the relationship in general and I always felt very direct guidance to continue in those relationships and to continue investing, continue loving, and to continue giving even though I knew that I loved that person more than he loved me. And it was, it was a difficult thing to do. It was a difficult answer to receive and it was difficult for the people around me who loved me who was, who were watching me and saying, "You know you weren't actually really happy in that relationship." And I was like, "Yeah, doi, but like I still felt like I was supposed to do it." And then because of that guidance to stay, I was always the one who was broken up with. And that became also very frustrating, heartbreaking part of those relationships. And the question: why am I here? And why am I led to do these things and give so much in relationships that they're just gonna break my heart? I don't understand.
And the lesson that I started getting from that and, and started believing was that heavenly father was preparing me for that kind of marriage a marriage where I was the one who was going to love most. And, and I just said, "Okay, if that's what I have to do then I guess that's what I will do. If that's what He's preparing me for then I will do it. Now if someone single was telling me this story, I would say to them, "No, no, no, no, no. You should run from that because marriage is supposed to be really, really good and love is supposed to be reciprocated and you are supposed to be happy in your marriage." But at the time, I did not feel like I was selling myself short. I felt like it was a noble calling that the Lord was extending me to have this kind of self-sacrificing love. Even though now, looking back at it, I just think, "Man, that is grim." That is, it is, a just a really like dark place to have been. But again, it didn't feel dark. It felt like that's what the Lord was telling me to do.
So flash forward to meeting and falling in love with my husband. And it could not be more opposite from what I had experienced in my previous relationships. We had been friends for a long time and then we fell in love with each other at about the same time and it was totally reciprocated and just mutual enjoyment and adoration and love for each other that you should have in a relationship. And I was kind of like, "Okay, those relationships were weird. Those lessons that I learned for the last nine, 10 years, that was weird. And I just kind of said, "Well, I guess the Lord was giving me those lessons so that I would recognize and appreciate what I had with Chris."
So then our first child was born. And Lily was born with what has been diagnosed as undiagnosed genetic disorder. She is developmentally disabled, and although she's about 10 years old developmentally and functionally, she is still a lot like a young toddler. So she doesn't speak and she doesn't have any sign language or any kind of meaningful communication but she is amazing and she's an incredibly hard worker and she just brings light and love in her life to everyone around her. In fact, her distinguishing feature of her life is how much she loves people. And an element of that is that she loves many people more than she loves me. It has been that way since she was born. She came out of my womb saying, "You're fine, but give me anyone else, really."
She has always loved her dad and, and so obviously preferred her dad that even when I would make jokes about it, no one would even dispute the fact that she loved her dad more than she loved me. You know, some, sometimes if you say something like, "That's true but like a little depressing." People would be like, "Oh no, I'm sure that's not true." And, yeah, no one's ever disputed the fact that she vastly and obviously prefers her dad to me. And really, since she's grown and developed, she's added more people to her list of who she prefers to me, the mother who grew her and birthed her and has done everything in her life for her and dedicated my life to her existence and development in life. So I used to joke about it and I still can joke about it saying, "You know, she's really, really lucky that she came to a very secure person as a mother because if I was an insecure mom who really needed reciprocated love, then she would be in a world of hurt and I, as her mom, would be in a world of hurt."
What's funny is it did not dawn on me that there was a connection between those long years of dating and this role that I play as Lily's mom until I was talking with my best friend and this was like years into Lily's life. She was probably 5 or 6 before we had this conversation and somehow we were talking about our dating years and my best said to me, "You know why those lessons came, right?" And I said, "Yeah, you know, so I would recognize Chris and recognize how good our relationship is." And she said, "No, it's because of Lily."
And it like hit me like a ton of bricks, "Oh my gosh, that 10 years that I had of loving people more than they loved me and feeling that guidance to learn how to do that and to do it so it's just completely second nature, was a total and complete preparation for being my daughter's mother."
And he knew that I would find Chris. He knew that we would choose each other and that we would accept the calling to be Lily's parents. He knew what that would cost emotionally to love her day in and day out and give what it takes to be her parents and her caregiver. He knew that would require a very specific set of skills and He started laying that foundation in my life long before I could have even guessed that that's what he was giving me. But once I started kind of seeing that foundation that Heavenly Father had laid in my life for that role of mother, I started seeing other things that He had given me to that were specific to raising Lily and her two brothers.
Probably one of the most valuable tools He's given me to get through my life is that I just am not concerned about what other people think of me. I feel comfortable with the fact that I'm just not a perfect parent and I'm not ever going to be. And what this does is my comfort level opens up room for my family to feel comfort in the fact that they are not perfect either. And we're hopefully creating a culture in our family where we just don't stress about our imperfections and we can trust our Savior that He has made it okay, that we are not doing life the way that we wish we were all the time. The value for me in recognizing this odd assortment of gifts that my Heavenly Father has given me is that it helps me remember on those days where I go to bed feeling like I just can't do it again tomorrow or when I feel like I'm not equipped to handle my life's set of challenges that He's actually been filling my toolbox with exactly what I need to get the job done. And that He has known for a long time what my life would need and what tools I would need to successfully navigate it as long as I can keep faith in Him and keep remembering that He's with me I can keep going, even on the days when it feels like I can't.
KaRyn: That was Megan. How many times have I wondered what the point was in a seemingly pointless experience? The fact that Megan was able to connect the dots from her single years to her mothering years is pretty amazing. I also love that this gift from God was unwrapped by her best friend. Sometimes it's hard to see things as they really are. And having that wise trusted friend to show us the different vantage point might just be one of the greatest blessings.
Megan's story reminds me that like those macaroni necklaces and handprint sculptures that inevitably make their way into our treasure boxes, the gifts that God gives us might not look like much when we first receive them. In fact, they may even be deceptively ugly or hard or uncomfortable. But when we look just a little bit closer with the eyes of eternity and faith, we can see them for what they really are.
During that year that I was caring for Cody, I had every kind of experience that you can imagine. The separation from his mom was so terribly hard on his little seven-year-old heart and even with all the many letters that they sent back and forth and drawings that Catherine sent to him, he was often caught up in a kind of heartache that was so difficult to soothe. The school therapist called it separation anxiety, which was a new term to me at the time and it manifested itself in rages and even in self-harm.
So I did my best to learn from his mom and even some professionals how to comfort him and to calm him. And most times it worked but there was this one night when he was sick. He had a slight cough and some congestion and that anxiety took over. His symptoms were mild, but because of the congestion, he had trouble breathing through his nose. And so I set up a humidifier, I put Vicks vapor rub, all the things my mom had taught me to do and I used warm compresses to help soothe him. But that fear just took hold. He cried and he screamed and I remember that he pounded and he ripped at the walls as his face and his little body turned bright red with anger. He begged me to take him to the hospital and swore that if I didn't take him right now, "The police were going to come and they would kill you, KaRyn."
I knew what was happening. I don't know if it was intuition or something else but I understood in that moment that he was totally afraid of dying before he could be reunited with his mother.
He'd been away from her for so long now and she seemed so far away. I'm sure in his little child mind it was over continents and oceans instead of just across the country. But how do you tell a child that what they're feeling is irrational when they're in the moment? And how do you help them see that tomorrow they're going to wake up warm and safe and feeling just a little bit better when so much of their life has been anything but warm and safe? So I've tried everything that I knew how to do and nothing, nothing worked. Finally, in a fit of desperation and I think now inspiration, I quietly told Cody that I was going to be right back. And I told him that I was gonna go say a prayer to Heavenly Father to help us.
So when I walked out of the room, I closed the door and it was to the sound of wailing and screaming and raging and I just broke down in tears.
And I knelt down at my couch. I remember it was my parents' old couch from their old house and I knelt down at that couch and I poured out my heart to my Father in Heaven as it broke. I told Him that I didn't know what to do and that I wasn't equipped for this. That I didn't have what it would take to soothe his son and I begged him for help. I pleaded for relief for Cody and for me.
And when I got up from that couch and I wiped my tears away, I headed back to the bedroom that just minutes before had been an absolute battleground. And what I found there was Cody curled up in the bed with a blanket kind of tucked around his ears and his eyes were closed. So I leaned over and I touched his hair and then he kind of woke up a little and I asked him if he was feeling better because I didn't really know what was going on. And he nodded and then he said to me, "KaRyn, I said a prayer too. And God told me that everything is gonna be all right. I'm going to be all right and I'm gonna see my mom again." And then he fell asleep. The lesson for me in that moment is this Sometimes the gift that God gives us in our parenting is a gentle and reassuring reminder. That we are only proxy for Him.
We give everything we have to give. We set boundaries. We teach lessons we share faith. We wrangle babies in restaurants and find soccer cleats in the backyard. And then we stand back and acknowledge the power of a God who loves that child even more than we can possibly imagine. And we seek Him to guide us in the raising of that son or daughter with trust in the fact that he is providing for them always providing for them especially in the moments when we fall short.
That's it for this episode of This is the Gospel. Thank you to our storytellers Erin and Megan and a special thank you to Cody and Catherine. wherever you are, for allowing me and my family to be a small part of your story.
If you have a story to share, whether it's funny touching or miraculous, we'd love to hear it. Call pitch line at 515-519-6179 and leave us a message with a short synopsis of your story. We've heard from so many of you that this podcast is helping you to have a more spiritually focused day and we're so glad. If you have a minute, would you please go to the Apple iTunes app. Leave us a review or a rating. That really does help us to show up for other people to find us. This episode was produced and edited by me, KaRyn Lay and Sarah Blake, with story editing by Katie Lambert. It was mixed and mastered and scored by Casey Blake. Our executive producer is Erin Hallstrom. You can find past episodes of this podcast and other LDS Living podcasts at ldsliving.com/podcasts. Have a great week!