Where I have worked for the past two and a half years is all about families. Especially the ones that aren’t working very well. Love cracked open, disappointment spilling out. Yet even as my fingers type that sentence, I realize, no, that isn’t quite right. The part that isn’t working in these families is just one part of their complicated stories.
On the flip side of the brokenness are individuals who are absolutely driven to create a family, so much so, they’re willing to go through more than anyone who conceived kids the old fashioned way probably ever would.
After I listen to the people I sometimes get to talk with, their stories linger for a long time. I think about them because the stereotypes I hold become really clear whenever I talk to someone who has chosen to create or grow their family through adoption.
And there are so many versions of families these days. I wish there was a less loaded term, something other than the word “family” to describe the multitude of scenarios that bring people together into co-habiting units.
Compared to years past, adoption seems now to be a whole other dimension of relationships and hearing firsthand about that shift is what I most like about the conversations I have with adoptive and foster parents.
Almost all of their stories are about connection and re-connection across multiple families, of light finding its way through the cracks, just like Leonard Cohen said it would. Foster families might still be in touch after adoptions or even provide respite to the new adoptive parents. Extended families are caring for relatives’ kids. Same sex families are adopting kids who identify as trans. Indigenous families are taking on guardianship. There is no such thing as a “typical” family.
Yes, we hear horrible stories in the news about some foster parents. But we rarely hear about the life changing being there for kids like they have never known that I know happens as well.
Whenever I speak with foster or adoptive families, I’m reminded that, “We all need backup. We’re not islands unto ourselves.”
I often wonder about all those faces I conjure up in my mind – children and teens – in foster care and wonder how broken their hearts might be, and all the complexity of the scenes that unfolded to land them there.
Excruciating decisions and no decision-making at all. Neglect, addiction, alcoholism, mental illness, the fallout from poverty. The death of parents or any combination of the above. And then miraculous resilience in those same little ones, like paper whites inching their way back up in spring. Overcoming all odds.
And so many kids so eager, in spite of everything they’ve already been through, to find that elusive loving relationship. The one that’s going to work, that they can count on. A place to call home that they feel good about calling home. A mom and a dad, or a dad and a dad, or a mom and a mom, or just a mom, just a dad, grandmas and Nana and Oma, aunties and uncles. Sometimes just a family friend who has stepped in, lives overlapping, coming together in the best case scenarios to put the kids first.
What is it that sets the best parents – biological, foster or adoptive – apart? I wonder about that but it always returns to the simplest of answers: unconditional acceptance and love.
Your children can only be their own person. They won’t grow up to be who you wish they could be or who you wish you’d been. Stop trying to make them someone else. You will lose that battle eventually or ultimately you will lose them. As Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself…” I’ve always believed that. It’s as if we were were all formed in spirit before we were even born.
When I cast my mind back on myself as a toddler, I see myself with dolls. I’d carry them around. I’d sit across a small wooden child-size table and have invisible tea with them. I really liked to put different dresses on them. I don’t think I ever consciously thought about whether I’d have my own kids while I was doing it.
In my thirties, I didn’t experience any ticking of the proverbial biological clock. Maybe that was because my own life was so often in emotional chaos that having a baby was just relegated to some reality that had nothing to do with me. Depression played a significant role in that detour, among many other things, usually related to men, that with the benefit of hindsight I see much more clearly now.
And while it’s true, I have some regret about not having created my own little family, if I’m being honest, those regrets are actually relatively minor because I stopped romanticizing the reality of family a long time ago.
For as long as I can recall, I wasn’t interested in creating a group of people who would feel like a burden, because that’s how I viewed family. My entire focus had been on being free of constrictive responsibilities and, my God, I have succeeded beyond all expectations in that regard.
I guess the lack of a strong meaningful emotional connection that both my parents seemed capable of creating with their children was a major contributor to my family-as-burden archetype. But an even bigger factor was probably just observing my mother and how much work she did every single day to raise five kids, seemingly single-handedly. No thanks! I know my parents did the best they could based on their own upbringings and they worked so hard, maybe too hard. And I’m pretty sure, if they’d had more choice, they would have made different choices.
Now, when I see/hear good parents in action, just listening to how they speak with their children can melt my heart (because it’s so caring) and break my heart (because it reminds me of the type of loving softness and comfort that my parents weren’t able to give to us), not that they didn’t give in other ways.
I guess that’s why it’s a bit of a surprise to me now to recognize how I have come to understand, albeit a little late, how much family matters.
They push our buttons to an extreme. We might be estranged. We might fantasize about how things could have been so much better if only we weren’t related to THEM! Or they can be our best friends. They are that cast of wacky characters in our own weird little “All in the Family” mini series. They are the ones who are there when family members get sick. If we’re lucky, they are the ones most likely to be there at the end.
The older I get, I have come to understand that there are few things more comforting than a feeling of belonging, and nothing generates the feeling of belonging the way a family can, especially through the sharing of happy moments.
That’s why I hope you do something this Family Day weekend that brings enjoyment to your kid(s) and shows them that you still actually know how to have fun. Be unpredictable! It doesn’t have to cost a lot.
Be who THEY need YOU to be.