Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: I just got home from an impromptu dance party with some small foster children I was on a playdate with.
I’m still beaming – my heart does a happy front-flip every time I picture the goofy smile written across the face of this pre-verbal toddler who didn’t say much but who communicated such loud joy with his whole body as we rocked out together to The Lion Sleeps Tonight. His older brother was the mastermind behind the idea; after we got back from a playdate at the park and found there was no one else home yet, a mischievous glint flashed across his eyes and he said, “We have the house all to ourselves… we should have a party!!!A dance party!” So we did. It was awesome.
My body’s tired but my heart is brimming with life: a feeling that’s become a familiar part of my life over the last few years as I’ve discovered how much joy my friendships with kids consistently bring me.
These little people have been teaching me about so many things through our friendships: teaching me about play. Connection. Trust. Wonder. Laughter. Rest. Sincerity. Family. But the most meaningful thing they’re teaching me is how God feels towards me. Over the last few years (and since joining a church community that values intergenerational friendships), I’ve realised that children have taught me more about the nature of God than any other embodied experience in this season of life.
In many ways, my starting point for thinking about children is probably very different to the average person. I’ve always gravitated towards the idea that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ and the idea that a whole community has not just the responsibility to provide care, but also the privilege of being a meaningful part of our kids’ lives. On the flipside, because of this, I’ve always struggled to understand other people’s experience of wanting a child ‘of their own.’
This probably started with my early family of origin experiences as someone who grew up caring for younger siblings and babies regularly. It was my norm to spend one morning a week on ‘baby duty,’ waking up to my baby brother’s cries in the early hours of the morning and being responsible for bottle-feeding and tending to him until the rest of the family woke up. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know how to change dirty nappies. Nurturing kids is just the norm I was born into.
I think my own queerness plays a key role in this too. A growing number of queer and LGBTQIA+ people like to describe queerness as “the embodied freedom to behave differently,” and I see this embodied freedom play out in my experiences of what it means to be a family or to raise a child. One of the things the queer population does exceptionally well is embodying the idea of ‘chosen family.’ As I mentioned, the idea of having a child ‘of your own’ has always been at odds with my countercultural conceptions of family. What does it even mean to have a child ‘of your own?’ Does it mean having biological offspring who share your DNA? Surely not, because adopted children are no less ‘your own’ children for having different genes. In fact, the chosen-ness of adoptive and foster children has always struck me as a more profound picture of parental love—because someone has made a purposeful decision to step towards a child to whom they have no pre-existing legal or moral obligation, and they have wilfully welcomed that child into their family to share in the overflow of their kindness and nurture. That child is chosen and loved.
Another quirk/perk of growing up gay and Christian was that, while I’ve always loved kids and wanted them in my life, I never expected to have biological children, nor have I particularly desired them. In fact, from my early teenage years, I never even expected to marry someone (of any gender) or form a conventional nuclear family unit, so my entire adult life has been lived under the expectation of embodying non-traditional family structures. While not having any social scripts for this kind of queer existence can be overwhelming and isolating, there’s also a deep joy and creativity in the embodied freedom to re-write new scripts that transcend rigid conventional norms.
How this plays out in my day-to-day is sometimes I get really ‘clucky’ – you know that feeling when your body and your heart experience a surge of parental instincts and you feel a deep compulsion to pour out some nurturing care towards offspring? – but instead of experiencing that cluckiness as an urgent desire to marry or produce biological children, it pulls me towards a deeper investment in the existing nurturing relationships in my life. As strong as these parental nurturing instincts can be for me (and increasingly so as I get older), they surprisingly don’t leave me desiring something beyond what I already have; instead they deepen my awareness of and gratitude for the many ways I already get to express these instincts. I get clucky, not for ‘my own’ children, but for a deeper appreciation of the intergenerational friendships I already enjoy in my community.
[Sidebar: I won’t pretend that this is because of some virtuous contentment on my part—it’s not. And I want to acknowledge that lots of people—especially women—do experience strong urges for specifically biological children, that that is a natural function of our bodies, and that this experience is no more lacking in contentment and gratitude than my own. My experience isn’t better or more virtuous: it’s just different.]
When I get clucky, it’s a strange sensation of desire mixed with joy, of yearning mixed with fulfillment. This emotional cocktail fuels a renewed investment in intergenerational friendships with my cherished Tiny Friends and their families. I hope this kind of investment benefits these kids and their families in significant ways; I know it enriches my own life immeasurably.
I’m learning that there’s something distinctive about children that feels different to more ‘symmetrical’ friendships with peers. There’s a special kind of joy in serving and caring for a child, even if, or especially if there’s nothing they can do to reciprocate. When I’m connecting with kids, there’s an almost overwhelming tenderness and warmth that wells up in my heart, an almost bodily urge to fight to protect these vulnerably precious lives from harm, and a burning drive to nurture them to grow up knowing the safety and love of Jesus.
When I feel these emotions welling up inside me, I’m reminded of how Father God feels towards me. Theological truths I’ve held in my head for decades start to make their way down to my heart as I catch glimpses of how it really feels to care for a little one. Could God really feel that kind of tenderness towards me?
I had my first overnight babysitting experience earlier this week babysitting for some friends that have welcomed me in as part of their family. Maybe I’m over-sentimentalising mundane things (I’m good at that, apparently), but in something as ordinary putting the kids to bed, I felt a strange wave of caregiving tenderness wash over me. As I tried to move the kids towards a state of restfulness, I was struck by how much they depended on me, the only adult in the house, to create a sense of safety and connection where they could rest at ease. When the 6-year-old came out of bed later, a bit teary and asking for a cuddle because she missed her parents, I got to sit with her, assuring her of her parents’ affection and my own presence. She knew these things already – but she wanted to be present with someone who could embody that care.
I wonder how God feels when he gets to be present with his children and embody a parental tenderness towards us. Does it make his heart sing the way mine did on Monday night? I can only imagine his feelings towards us are stronger and purer than my emotions have ever been—and that’s mind-blowing to me, because my emotions are already pretty freakin strong. I think about how a few months ago I cried the hardest I’ve cried in seven years the weekend two of my little friends came to church for the last time before leaving foster care to move back to their mother’s home. These guys have been such a treasured part of my church family—and my life—for the last year that, grateful as I was that they could return to their mother, I grieved the loss to our church family. It’s really beyond words to describe how deeply I felt that emotional cocktail, but again, I have to wonder if God doesn’t feel even more strongly about us.
That Sunday I cried all the way to church thinking about how much I valued these little boys’ place in my church family and how much I’d miss them, but I think I wasn’t just crying about that. I was overwhelmed by the staggering thought that God yearns just like this to see every one of his children come home to be part of his family. If I could feel such care for children I didn’t know two years ago and miss them this much, how much more deeply does God feel towards every one of his children that he chose for adoption into his family from the creation of the world? Suddenly the stories about God as the shepherd who left the 99 to bring that one lost sheep back home, or the father who ran affectionately after his runaway child with open arms, started to make emotional sense – like I was watching a silent film that suddenly had an emotional cinematic soundtrack bringing new depth to these familiar scenes.
There’s a lot more I’d love to say: about what kids themselves are teaching me, about how getting to a place of even feeling comfortable investing in families has been a long journey of navigating weird shame-y stuff, or about how God’s been expanding my vision of what “family” can mean… but right now I need to log off and channel some of this love into preparing for Kids Church tomorrow. I get to teach them a story about that time God loved his children so much that he became one of us and died on a cross to bring us real life. I can’t wait.
Instead, I’ll leave you with this story to close, told by a much better storyteller than me. I can’t help but read it with fresh eyes now, and I hope you do too:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.Matthew 18:1-5