As parents, we love our children. We revel in their giggles, rejoice in their accomplishments (“Yeah! The big-boy potty!”), and willingly sacrifice precious hours of shut-eye to tend to their most basic needs (“Good night, Sweetie. What’s that? Thirty cupcakes for Teacher Appreciation Day tomorrow!?”) And yet, parenting children with a history of abuse, neglect, and trauma, parenthood often means other, darker realities as well: isolation, embarrassment, chaos, therapy, and never-ending self-doubt.

Can you relate to this? Do well-meaning friends and family slip copies of Love and Logic and gently chiding your kiddos to stop climbing the walls, teasing the dog, or hiding hot dogs under the bed? Do they press for details about your child’s history and first family? Do you attend family functions on pins and needles, just waiting for the next disaster to erupt? Do you wish for a place where you can just relax and find kindred spirits who truly understand—who respond to your most embarrassing blunders and self-incriminating thoughts with the two most compassionate words in the English language: “Me, too!”

[Tweet "Compassion and camaraderie in 2 words: 'Me, too!' at REFRESH. Via @hsaxton #adoption #specialneeds"]

Have you ever felt this way? I have … and so this past weekend Craig and I drove to Chicago for “Refresh,” a Christian gathering for foster, adoptive, and special-needs parents looking for camaraderie, training, and perspective. Founded by evangelical Christians Andrew & Michele Schneidler and “Confessions of an Adoptive Parent” bloggers Mike and Kristin Berry, this year was the inaugural Midwestern event, held at the Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.

Craig and I weren’t sure what to expect – but both of us were delighted with what we found. Just outside the sanctuary, baskets of paddles reading “Me, too!” (Participants hold these up in solidarity when a speaker shares an observation or story with which the audience closely identifies). Inside the auditorium, participants wore buttons that helped them connect with those who had similar stories: “Foster-Adoption,” “Sibling Adoption,” “Special Needs,” “Birth Mother,” “International Adoption.” Most people wore multiple buttons. In no time, we were chatting with new friends about daycare vs. in-home care, and sharing how we bonded with our kids using “love banks” that enabled them to communicate the amount and type of affection they most needed from us. Craig went to a “Donuts and Dads” session where the guys could speak freely about the issues that most concerned them, while Michele had a similar event for moms, frequently breaking into small groups where we could share our own stories.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that Catholics were welcome here, too. This particular event was dedicated to a cause close to the heart of all Christians who are truly pro-life: supporting families who have said “Yes” to journeying alongside children who have been traumatized by abuse and neglect, and trying to make a difference in their young lives. Not all our stories have a neat-and-tidy, happy ending – one speaker spoke eloquently about what it’s like to watch the police take away your oldest son and place him in the juvenile justice system.

I felt the tears begin to surface as I held up my own paddle. “Me, too.”

"Are you an adoptive or foster parent? Consider REFRESH!" by Heidi Hess Saxton ( Copyright 2016 Heidi Hess Saxton. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

You can find more information about our experiences at this event on my blog, A Mother on the Road Less Traveled, and about the March conference in Seattle at the Refresh website. Finally, if you need some encouragement but are unable to swing the conference this year, I recommend your checking out the blog of Mike and Kristi Berry, Confessions of an Adoptive Parent. Help is out there … you can do this!

Copyright 2016 Heidi Hess Saxton

Heidi Hess Saxton Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.

About the author: Heidi Saxton is an author and editor, and adoptive parent of two special-needs teenagers. Her books Advent with St. Teresa of Calcutta and Lent with St. Teresa of Calcutta are available from Franciscan Media. She blogs at A Mother on the Road Less Traveled and Extraordinary Moms Network.