We are honored to have Natalie Brenner share her heart here on our community blog, The Quilt of Life. Natalie is a mother-by- adoption, biology, and foster care, photographer, and best-selling author. She is a fierce believer in the impossible and hopes to create safe spaces for every fractured soul. Welcome, Natalie. And thank you for sharing your voice!
What inspired you and Loren to become foster parents?
After we brought home our first two children, one through adoption and the next shortly after through biological birth, we knew we would eventually become foster parents. Our community was filled with foster families, the need in Portland is substantial, all we needed was a bigger home and for our babies to be a bit bigger. Essentially, the crisis was overwhelming: there are so many children who were ripped from their families and placed into hotels with DHS workers because the shortage of foster family resources is huge. These kids are the most vulnerable children of society, and they deserve a warm home, a stable routine, someone to call family in the most difficult time of their journey.
You are a mother by adoption, biology, and foster care. How has this shaped your perspective on motherhood?
Wow. It has shaped it entirely in the best of ways. I only know motherhood through these lenses, not ever was I “just” or “first” a biological mom. Motherhood has simply always been born out of tragedy, for me. It has been shaped through loss, grief, pain, and brokenness. I am not a stranger to grief and pain, and neither are my kids; because these deep realities birthed my motherhood, I am not afraid to sit in those things with my kids. They have so many reasons to sit in those realities and I give them all the permission in the world to. Now this doesn’t mean we sit around and wallow and cry and weep for no good reason. It means when we are triggered by a visit, by a memory, by bad dreams, etcetera…we pause whatever we are doing, we process and reprocess, and we cry if needed. After we do that, we practice taking deep breaths and speaking true things: I am safe, I am loved, I am made perfect, I am valuable. And then when ready, we keep going through our day.
My role in motherhood is not to control and force my children to behave a certain way. My role as a mother is to do my best to offer them a picture of living wholly. I work hard to be true to myself, modeling that it is healthy to experience the wide range of emotions and human experiences. But also that we do not need to lose self control while in the throes of anger or sadness, you know? So, I try to remind myself that as a mother, I need to worry less about forcing my kids to behave and act a certain way…and teach them how to view the world and its people. Teach them how their words and actions may affect someone else, or what they say about us or the other person. I work really hard to help my kids process life in a holistic way, so that when they are sent off without me, they are armed with the ability to see as clearly as possible.
How do you help the children in your household who have experienced trauma to heal? What advice would you offer other foster parents?
I have spent hours and hours and hours studying the work of Karyn Purvis. She has loads of free youtube videos that are each 5-7 minutes long, plus an entire website (Empowered To Connect), and book. I have learned the healing power of Connected Parenting and it has transformed me in so many ways as a relational human. It’s a constant work, it’s constantly undoing what I know and what is ingrained in me. But wow! It is worth it. It pushes against what I believed to be true in the past, and gives me a beautiful picture of parenting that I whole-heartedly believe in. I have experienced parenting with connection to WORK in amazing ways. So, definitely do some hard work and unlearn what you know, by relearning the work of Connected/Therapeutic Parenting.
How do you navigate the waters of being a multi-racial family?
One moment at a time. I do my best to handle conversations with kindness and grace while also realizing my kids are my first and foremost priority in any conversation. I rope the kids into the questions, I ask them if they want me to engage in a conversation, or if they want to. I also sometimes simply respond with, “Families don’t have to match to be family and love each other.” I am also not afraid to correct and confront a (micro) aggression. I do this without exploding to the best of my ability; I am a firm believer that we can be both angry and kind at the same time.
Any art in our home reflects our children. I have a few different gorgeous water-paintings displaying brown and black skin as the beautiful focus. We have little wooden dolls reflecting each family member, matching their skin tones. We have canvases of our kids on our walls, portraying their beauty. I have a letter board in my girls’s room that says, “I am Black and I am beautiful.” Our books are filled with people of color and talk about multi-racial families. We attempt to find therapists who are people of color. Our community is filled with people of color. Our church is led by people of color. Our dinner table often has friends of color.
And we talk about it! The other day my four year old was bouncing around saying she was a monkey. I asked her where she got that idea; she said someone at school called her that. So we sat down and we talked about how we don’t call any human animals, and we especially don’t call brown kids monkeys because not long ago (and even still) many white people called black people monkeys to hurt their feelings. So we reject that title and that put-down, and we just own being a human. Sure, we can play and have fun and be kids, but we also are not going to perpetuate these things. We talk about it. I want my kids to be equipped to stand up for themselves and each other, to not walk in complete ignorance if someone is being totally and unjustly unkind to them.
We also talk about how beautiful are different skin tones and compare them, as well as our hair. My girls are always saying they wish they were white like me, with straight hair. I let them share what they want to share, and then I either ask them why they wish that or I tell them that they are made perfectly. That their curls love each other so much, they hug, and that’s why we have to untangle them. That their skin is so perfect. And all the things of celebrating their beauty.
What are the most fun family activities that you do with your children to inspire bonding and inclusion?
I love taking my kids on hikes, exploring new parks, or doing some sort of activity at home. We play restaurant, we make crafts, we build bird houses, we have a TON of dance parties, we bake. We camp, we swim, we spend a lot of time with community and friends. I do my best to set my phone down, with of course a bit of space to record or photograph moments, and be fully present with them.
What are the three most important life lessons that you want your children to know?
1. They are worth more than the world can offer them…they are worth the fierce kind of love that lays itself down for them. The patient and kind love, the advocacy and safe love. They are worth it and they deserve it.
2. People are humans too, and every human being deserves our kindness. We can be angry, we can place boundaries, we don’t even have to have relationships with everyone…but they deserve to be seen as a human.
3. It is okay to grieve. It is okay to be sad. It is okay to admit that life is hard, and then keep going. Our pains and losses are worth giving their space to, and our kids deserve to give their loss and pain space, because they deserve to heal.
What would you like the world to know about children from hard places?
None of this is their fault. Their “difficult behaviors” are not their fault — they are their survival skills. They deserve just as much a chance at a good, healthy, safe, loved life as you and me.