My grandmother was the most influential person in my life. She made it abundantly clear in words and actions,that family always came first. As a child, I remember her weekly visits. She and my grandfather would come to our house once each weekend to have lunch. They would also call our home at least once per week, although I am sure these calls happened about every other day- just to check in. My grandmother would mail clippings from newspapers to us if she found an article that she thought we would find interesting. She was at every graduation, every birthday party, and every family event without fail.
Those were the things I remember. However, the importance of family was illustrated well before I was born. Her first husband went into the military and off to World War 2. He chose to not return, leaving her as a single mother of my half-uncle. To be a divorcee at that time was essentially like being branded with the scarlet letter. But she did not let that deter her. She became a career woman, something quite atypical at that time. She became a secretary from a career politician; no one suspecting that she had not gotten her degree. She learned that maintaining an air of dignity and grace allowed her to provide for her family. She continued to work after she was married to my grandfather, and despite coming from a working-class family, was able to save enough money to send my mother to college. She became the first person to graduate college in our family.
Some may argue that the reason she valued family as highly as she did was because she was the eldest. And maybe that is why I too value family so highly. But my guess is that these values I learned directly from this amazing woman.
Readers of this blog may have noticed my aversion to writing about my family. Blog post after blog post I have described and illustrated values shared by my husband and myself to show that we not only have values, but to show the various ways that we live them. It would seem odd that I would avoid this particular value, the one that directly correlates to our adoption and the very purpose of this blog.
As I have gotten older, the concept of family has become more and more complex. Communication, being supportive, and displaying love as gotten harder. After coming out at fourteen years old (at this time, coming out at this age was unheard of) a lot of things shifted.
Just prior to my coming out, my mother had sent my brothers and myself to a Puritan Christian school (I was sent to detention because my hair came over my ears, and because my father did not sign my homework book- I had completed the homework and received 100% on it if you were wondering). It was located literally between two corn fields. It had once been a one room school house. I was in the seventh grade, which was combined with the eighth grade in one room of the basement (totaling 13 students) and all four years of high school were located next door. My god mother was taking me to “Contagious Christianity” classes and my uncle was taking me to game nights with his other evangelical friends (my nuclear family was not particularly religious). I too became born-again and began spreading the “good news” to anyone willing or even unwilling to listen to it.
With this background, you can imagine how shocking it was for me to discover that I was gay. You can also probably imagine the amount of rejection I felt. My uncle began to talk about me to my brothers and my godmother and my relationship has never recovered. My parents did not know what to do. My mother reported that she knew I was gay at the age of five (it is unclear to me to this day why she would put me into a Puritan Christian school if that was the case) and my father began to wonder what he had done to make me the way that I am. In hindsight, I have to wonder if all of the sports teams they signed me up to and putting me into the boy scouts, was their way of trying to prevent me from “becoming that way.” But that is just speculation.
Throughout middle and high school, I began to isolate myself. My parents seemed to be lost in parenting my two other brothers, and having no idea what to do with me, probably gave up. I was getting good grades, and for my family, that is a sign that you were doing fine. I only would come out of my isolation to speak to my grandmother. She didn’t understand specifically what I was going through, but she repeatedly acknowledged that it was “hard”. She reflected back on what it was like to be the oldest and the responsibilities that it entails. It was at that point that I started focusing on helping my youngest brother with his homework. He had been diagnosed with ADHD, and my parents were at their wits end. I tried, in the only ways at 16 to 18-year-old knew how, to try to get him to do his homework and to avoid stressing out my parents beyond what they could handle.
I went away to undergrad, and in doing so became further disconnected with my family. Communication was rare. This was due to a combination of my schoolwork and my parents still raising my brothers. My middle brother then moved to Colorado to go to school. This would be one of the most influential moves in our family history. My youngest brother followed suit.
While in college, my middle brother became born-again. He was taken into a church and was asked to do mission work, converting other college students at various universities for the next several years. The church also encouraged my brother to date his now wife. It was evident in one trip I took to visit him, that he did not approve of my being gay, something that he had previously accepted. Since then, he and his wife have three boys together. My relationship with them is strained, as I don’t want to challenge their parenting, in which I fear my very presence may do. I also don’t want to punish my nephews for a belief system they did not choose. Plus, they are family.
My youngest brother has been trying to find himself in Colorado. The distance, time zone differences, and his unmedicated ADHD has made regular communication with him all but impossible. And my parents now have most of their family, and now grandchildren in Colorado. They have to straddle respecting my middle brother’s beliefs, continue supporting my youngest brother to help him find security, and me, the one that forever appears to be doing okay (and I am).
We are a house divided. The one time that we would all get together was Christmas. The year my grandmother passed, I fought hard to maintain this tradition. I knew that if this tradition dissipated, so too would our fragile family. We did not get together that Christmas. In the almost decade that has passed since my grandmother’s death, we may have seen each other for Christmas one time.
Emotionally, there is some part of me that feels as though I have failed my grandmother in not keeping our family together. Intellectually, I know that there was nothing that I could have done. The tension between these two sides becomes ever present whenever the subject of my family is brought up. Along with feelings of grief, anger, shame, and guilt. This is why I have been avoiding the topic of my family up until this point.
Some of these feelings have been tempered since marrying into Matt’s family. Other than a few months in the beginning of our relationship, (Matt had just come out AND told his parents that he was marrying a man- a lot for anyone to digest), and I have been accepted into the family. We are invited to Christmases, Thanksgiving dinners, graduations, and vacations. All of the things that I have felt had become increasingly more elusive in my own family.
I have decided to share all of this background in order for readers to grasp the gravity and context of what has occurred over Matt and my vacation to Cape May this year.
About two months prior to our vacation to Cape May, Dean (my sister-in-law’s boyfriend) emailed me to request that I take photos of his proposal to Becca (my sister-in-law) while we are on vacation. He also began messaging me back and forth about ideas regarding how and when to propose. I could not have been more honored. These are the sorts of emotional and supportive conversations I had been longing for. THIS is what FAMILY is all about. I was now being included in something HUGE. This was going to be a life-changing event in Matt’s- no MY- family.
Throughout the vacation, Dean would check in with me about his anxiety. I was provided the opportunity to support him, calm him, and help him figure out what would be the best and most meaningful moment he could create.
While hiking by the Cape May Lighthouse, Dean had become increasingly antsy. He began checking in with me every ten to fifteen minutes. I knew that the proposal would be soon. Luckily, I remember to bring my camera. For most of the hike, I would take the lens cap off in preparation for the big moment. Not too far away from the swamps and bogs surrounding the lighthouse was a beach and it was on that beach that Dean decided to propose.
I felt so happy for Becca. I felt so happy for Dean. And perhaps selfishly, I felt happy for myself. I was an active participant in Matt’s family. In doing so, I really felt like I had been formally initiated into a new family unit. With each snap of the camera, I felt like I was taking another step into the sacred bond of family.
For the rest of the vacation, Dean and I bonded. I now had a new brother. A brother that shared my sense of humor. I brother that enjoyed spending time with me. A brother that reached out and shared his emotions. As I am writing this, I can feel a lump forming in my throat. For the first time in a long time I feel like I have a family to which I am wanted and belong (this is not to say that I don’t have my own family or that I don’t appreciate them; but the simplicity of unconditional love can be felt not only emotionally, but physically, something I haven’t felt since my grandmother passed).
We spent most of the vacation together, Matt, Becca, Dean, and I. Went walked the boardwalk and the beach, spent time at the pool, and ate at our favorite restaurants. Matt and I enjoyed taking them to the Cape May Zoo, as neither Becca nor Dean had ever been. Additionally, I got to be chased by Guinea fowl (I have an uneasiness around birds, so my sense of fear and imminent danger around these fancy chickens was real) and Matt got to bond and be pecked by a white peacock (because Matt and I could not be more different people).
This was an amazing vacation. I not only got to relax and get amazing pictures of animals, but I also got a new brother. I don’t think I could have asked for anything else.
Families are a journey. They come together they grow apart. Sometimes there is a chasm that slowly grows over time if ignored. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, you are offered a second chance. My experience of this may be what has called me to becoming a therapist. It may also be why I carry a caseload of so many adoptees. And it is this very unique, experiential understanding about the ever-changing, and sometimes traumatic dynamics of families that I bring to the table as a potential adoptive parent.
As much as we may want to turn a blind eye to the trauma that will occur with our future child and their mother, it would be foolish to do so. Our future child’s life will begin at the chasm. By choosing to have an open adoption, we are choosing to give our future child the chance to maintain a relationship with their birth family while also being accepted and loved in their adoptive family. Ideally, we would be able to foster a loving relationship with both families. That is an opportunity that we would not have if we decided to foster and then adopt.
I know what it feels like to have this chasm and what it feels like to have hope that things will change despite any evidence to the contrary. A child will never give up on their belief that their birth family will accept him. In a foster scenario, there is almost no hope that this could happen. In an open-adoption, we can join our child in this hope and work with them to make it a reality. That is the type of family I want for my future child. That is something every child deserves.