‘I choked out, ‘So, their dad and I are no longer living together.’ 8 months into fostering two of the girls, and 2 months after saying ‘yes!’ to adopting, my children’s father and I separated.’

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“Never in my wildest imagination did I think I’d be taking family photos without a husband, my children’s father.

The 4 — and then 6… and then 7 — of us looked so good in photos together, we fooled even ourselves. Until one day I was brave enough to stare our marriage’s reality in the face and ask for help. We had 5 kids at the time and had just celebrated 6 years of marriage. The walls of our entire life crashed, the walls built with facades and fantasies I had construed to survive, because silently dying inside felt more livable than looking at the truth and what would come next.

I wasn’t ever going to be a divorcee. ‘Divorce is for weak people who don’t understand the sacredness of the vow.’ I sincerely believed this to my core. I wasn’t about to tell that to a divorcee’s face, but anytime I heard of another friend’s marriage ending, I pitifully shook my head, disappointed for their lack of strength to just make it work.

Ignorance. It is such bliss, isn’t it?

K+A Photography

Here I am on the other side of a dissolved 6-year marriage, feeling stronger, braver, more myself than I would have believed possible. Boxes and biases and assumptions blown up left and right. Healing and hope birthed from deepest pains and complete fire.

Life has changed so much since these two boys made me theirs in 2016. When we welcomed our first-born son, Sage, into our arms while I was 20 weeks pregnant with our second-born son Ira, I felt like I was made for motherhood. Not just motherhood through the womb, but motherhood through adoption and eventually foster care.

Courtesy of Natalie Brenner

Less than two years after we stepped into the crazy of parenthood, we became foster parents. I admit my humanity craved, to some extent, filling our life up with intensity so we didn’t have to stare our marriage relationship in the face, its lack of actual intimacy, its lack of health, its loneliness… but more than that was a deep ache to mother children born into tragedy. I felt made to create safe spaces for kids surviving trauma, children stripped of a voice, our society’s most vulnerable. Once we stepped into that world, I never wanted it to end.

Courtesy of Natalie Brenner

2012 was the year I married, right after turning the ripe mature age of 20 years old. We began saving for adoption immediately. In 2016 we adopted our son and five months later birthed our second son. In 2017 we fostered two more baby boys, parenting four boys under the age of two. In 2018 we welcomed a total of three girls into our family, one of which we were going to adopt.

On one hand, I felt on top of the world mothering all of these beautiful kids. They each had their own developmental delays, their struggles with dysregulation and making poor decisions. Each child had unique challenges and I felt it was my privilege to learn how to navigate the waters of trauma with them. Each child brought beauty and joy and hope into our family and home. My boys loved having sisters, and they weren’t perfect together, but overall their relationships felt like magic. I felt like the luckiest mom to be mothering each of them.

Courtesy of Natalie Brenner

On the other hand, I was secretly dying inside of my marriage; it was silent and painful and numbing all at once. It was lonely and surface level and dysfunctional on many levels. Eight months into fostering two of the girls, and two months after saying ‘yes!’ to adopting baby AB, my children’s father and I separated.

I knew immediately our marriage would dissolve, but I also said I would give a few weeks or so to see if my heart felt anything but peace in that decision. My immediate and greatest fear was that all three of our girls would be removed. I wasn’t sure what my capacity would be day by day, but I also knew that my children’s father wasn’t about to peace out of the picture. We would continue co-parenting; we weren’t healthy as a married couple, but we are both active and involved in our parenting.

I sat my state certifier down at the park while all my kids played under the heat of the September sun and choked out, ‘So…their dad and I are no longer living together, and I don’t foresee us ever living together again.’ I explained the ways I was taking care of myself during this intense transition: counseling and therapy, support groups, community group, the tons of hours I had to myself throughout the week to write and process and work through this trauma so I could have the capacity to continue mothering these deserving kids.

‘I also understand if you feel it is not fair to the kids to remain in my care, I honestly don’t know if I can do this, but I want to put in all the support I can to at least try. I want to try. And I will be honest about it, if it is too much.’

Courtesy of Natalie Brenner

I wrote out a visible calendar of when he would be with the kids and when I would be with the kids; we would not have the kids going between homes, but continue using mine as the kids’ home, and we adults would switch spots.

Selfishness was something I was afraid of: I feared wanting to parent them so badly that I was being selfish when they deserved more than what I could give.

I breathed deeply, expecting her to tell me she’d be removing all three of the girls, including the baby we were supposed to adopt. I held my hands open and trusted the state would make that painful decision for me, if needed.

‘Natalie, wow. How do you feel about continuing parenting them? It will be up to Baby’s caseworker if the adoption goes through, but as far as I am concerned with you fostering the older girls, I mean…there is no where else to put them…so if you want to keep doing that, and we can continue to communicate about how you’re doing, I support that.’

I sobbed grateful tears. I had gone into that meeting dreading the goodbyes I was sure was coming, on top of the transition of their dad not living in our home. My imagination had run rampant the week leading up to this meeting, sure that I was about to not only walk my boys through their parents separating and ultimately divorcing, but also ripping their sisters away. And the compounding trauma the girls would have to go through, unnecessarily, when I craved to be their mom, even if temporary.

Courtesy of Natalie Brenner

Our community has never let us down; they rallied and sent food and money and took my kids on dates. They helped me move into a smaller, more affordable home on a day I had twelve photoshoots. They checked in with me and helped hold the shattered pieces of my life together, while attempting to navigate the tension of co-parenting.

Month by month I was unsure how I made it through, but I did. Our little family fell into a rhythm and we had routines and systems making life enjoyable and stable. Consistency was key and we made that happen for the kids. These kids, permanently with us or not, deserve more than they are handed, and I hated that I was dragging them through yet another transition and loss; I wanted to be sure I did everything I could to instill stability and secure love. I feel confident in having done that, with the help of many, especially during the last seven months my girls lived with us.

Courtesy of Natalie Brenner

I am proud of my motherhood this far, in all its imperfect glory. I will never regret saying yes to those kids, and pray for the day I get to say yes to more vulnerable kids. Our marriage dissolution has nothing to do with our kids or fostering or adopting; I hate that we have become a part of a statistic. I’ll share here what I shared with the kids: ‘Your dad and I would not be together whether we had one kid, two kids, or six kids. It is best and healthiest for us to be apart. It is not your fault.’

Even though life is not what I imagined, even though loss runs rampant in the story I am living, I’ll continue documenting us and our love, because life is always changing and I never want to lose our NOW moments.

It’s back down to me and my boys…and him and our boys, just separately.

Courtesy of Natalie Brenner

Divorce was never in the vocabulary of our life together and I worked so hard, especially internally, to avoid the destruction of what I was trying to create as my family. I was wracked with worry about failing our kids, all five of them at the time. At the end of the day I had to trust what I knew in my brain and in my heart, what Jesus revealed to me through prayer and fasting and seeking counsel.

I had to trust choosing sanity and health — healing — was a necessary step to take for myself but also my kids.

I’ve learned through this process that I am merely human, he is merely human, we are all wounded and trying to survive. I’ve learned grace and compassion and also self-respect on intimate levels.

Most moments at home are crazy with these toddler-kids screaming at me for more snacks or jumping off tables or peeing on the floor just because I said not to…but we still enjoy lots of laughter and tickle fights, dance parties and adventures.

I’m the luckiest to have them as my forever adventure buddies.

Courtesy of Natalie Brenner

Co-parenting is clunky, hearts are raw, emotions are hard. Sitting in our crap doesn’t feel good and it is easier to reject pain, and instead spit bitterness.

I’m imperfect and sometimes choose to respond snarky… but I hope in 5, 10, 15 years I’ll look back and be proud of how I’ve operated through divorce and life after.

I pray I don’t put my boys in unfair spots feeling like I want them to choose between parents, or as if their love for me is contingent on anything except for…the fact I’m their mom and they HAVE TO LOVE ME.

I can never be replaced in their life, just as he can’t be in theirs, just as my son’s birth parents can’t be.

Love isn’t pie, it’s not a competition.

There’s always room for more love.”

Courtesy of Natalie Brenner

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Natalie Brenner of Portland, Oregon. You can follow her journey on Instagram, her website and learn more about her book hereDo you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

Read Natalie’s adoption backstories here:

‘She said, ‘That’s them. That’s my son’s parents. That’s who I’ve been looking for.’ And then, I told her you were pregnant.’

‘I just have to ask, do you love Sage as much as you love Ira? I know you say you do, but is it true?’ We sat on my living room floor when she asked me this. I nodded. ‘I absolutely do.’

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