“I am alone in this. Nobody gets how hard it is.” She was right…sort of. A 45-year-old wife, social worker and mother of a handful of children (all adopted through the foster care system), sat on my couch and wept. She shared the details of having, again, reached the edge of herself. In the years leading up to her adoption she had fastidiously cultivated relationships in her church, working long hours to serve the community and establish relationships where she knew they trusted her integrity and valued her contribution. She thought these relationships would help her shoulder the burden of what she knew would be a hard couple of years as the children adjusted. When the children were placed though, and their behaviors were too much for the youth ministry, her church family pulled back and wished her well. She was alone.
Her experiences in parenting a tribe of what she calls her “littles,” is unique, just like every foster adoptive parenting story I’ve heard. But this mom has something special, something that seems to be highly correlated with the long-suffering resilience that keeps adoptive families intact—this mom has grit. Parenting is the grit that refines us into better versions of ourselves, and at the same time gives us grit by increasing our courage to do hard things and to run steadfastly toward danger. People with grit believe they have been sent, they have a sense of ingrained duty to make things better and even if they can’t, they won’t give up on you. No matter what.
Sandpaper has grit. Rough, untreated wood needs a coarse, low-number paper first, and finer high-number grit later to render a smooth, attractive finish. I am a researcher studying adoptive families, a Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) counseling these parents, an instructor training future therapists and a foster-adoptive parent myself. I am well acquainted with the abrasive friction between parents and their children, between spouses and between those spouses and God, deep within the shadows of their own hearts. I have also seen difficult situations be transformed and impossible barriers overcome with grit.
Grit recognizes grit
When I started studying foster-adoptive parents, I thought that their experiences were so unique that they could only really be understood by other foster-adoptive parents. It turns out, I was wrong. The client I mentioned previously sat across from me later, her mouth curling into a relieved smile. She shared with me that a woman she met, but who was not herself an adoptive mom, surprisingly got it. Somehow, the woman my client had met had life experiences that brought her to places that forced her to see herself as others saw her and revealed the “less-than-noble” parts of her character in “less-than-private” arenas, yet she didn’t give up. Instead, she allowed those experiences to shape her by forcing her to change her behaviors, allowed them to soften her edges by compassionately drawing near to women who might be struggling too and allowed them to bring her into a more dependent relationship with God.
As my client and her new friend exchanged stories, they discovered that though the color and brand of their sandpaper varied, they had both been sanded down by life-changing 60-grit experiences. The woman encouraged my client that her 180-grit day may give way to a 220-grit day tomorrow. Things were as rough as they seemed, but they would eventually smooth out; she had lived into that truth. Because she had grit, my client was comforted.
Grit in community
In our classrooms and in the corridors of the university, connections like this are happening every day for our students. Moments when they see that while their story is unique, they are not alone in the larger context of being faced with hard things and overcoming them.
- A Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy student balancing a marriage, a full-time job and two kids under five while caring for her sick parent finds herself in her practicum year, counseling a teen who is depressed and can’t imagine facing another day. This student knows what it is to face the “hard,” and she has earned the grit to stay with the client for as long as she needs, and then walk her out of it.
- An M.A. in Ministry, Leadership & Culture student who is already pastoring a church looks out on his congregation on Sunday morning and is faced with the impossible task of reaching them all. He shares a story of grit from his own life because he knows that God’s power shines brightest when we are at our weakest.
- A student in the SME program, training to be a hospital chaplain, couldn’t possibly know what his patients are experiencing: brain tumors, cancer, injuries. But he knows the fearful, weak, hopeless places in his own heart helps him sit well with them, in theirs, so they aren’t alone.
- A Master of Arts in Community Leadership and Transformation student coaches a team of believers to take their idea for a social enterprise to possible benefactors, with the hope of employing dozens of people who could finally provide a reliable income for their families. She has the courage to keep trying, keep learning and keep encouraging them that their dream can be a reality.
I can’t help but think that a community formed through these kinds of connections offers its members a protective factor; a promise that when hard things come down the road, we can count on each other for understanding and encouragement. That even if we are faced with unfixable problems, we won’t be alone. There is no faking grit. Life has either shaped you, or it hasn’t. The challenge is recognizing that your grit is one of your most powerful gifts to your community, your family and in your own life.