Last Friday, the Falco family went to a 50th birthday party for “Aunt Therra.” The next day, my youngest, Becton, asked, “How do we know Aunt Therra?” The question took me by surprise. But then I remembered that Becton was an infant when the events of legal significance took place.
I responded, “She was married to your Uncle Timothy [my brother].”
“What?!” he exclaimed.
“And she is one of K.J.’s godparents,” I continued.
“Well, okay, then. She is part of our family,” Becton concluded.
I started thinking about what “family” means and how our family might define the term differently than some people do. We are very flexible. With open adoption, you have to be. There are people related to you by blood and there are people related to you by law or proximity or daily routine. People who are “family” come in and out of our lives. Birth parents marry and divorce and have new babies who may be full or half-biological siblings. Aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and other more distant relations pop-up and disappear. We “count” all of these folks. And why not?
In my own family of origin, I have a brother with two children who is divorced but who currently lives with his ex-wife for financial and childcare reasons. I have another brother who is in a committed relationship with a woman who attends our extended family events as his partner though they are not, technically, married. And – as mentioned above – we have a continuing relationship with this brother’s wife of eleven years, who is now married to someone else.
John’s mother is our children’s grandmother, but so is John’s father’s wife who has now been married to him for longer than John’s mother was. It’s complicated, but it works.
The recent U.S. census tells us that families look less like the stereotype of a married mother and father, and two or more of their biological offspring than ever before. As a nation, we are more racially and ethnically diverse, and there are more unmarried parents.
I have spent time in my children’s classrooms talking about “family” over the years. In the beginning, my goal was to normalize adoption so that my own children would feel less different from their peers. I read age-appropriate books about adoption and told the story of that particular child’s adoption. We sang “Happy Adoption Day” and ate cupcakes or donuts to celebrate the anniversary of that child’s adoption finalization. I tried to educate the class about open adoption and on-going relationships with birth family members.
Over time, as the children matured, I began asking the question: “Who is in your family?” to lead off my presentation. The variety of responses amazed me. I expected to hear about blended families – divorced parents who remarried and had other children. I expected to hear about single parent families and about multiple generations living under the same roof. I hoped I would hear adoption stories and stories of gay or lesbian parents. But I also heard about reproductive technologies that helped to create children in ones, twos, or threes. One amazing story came from a girl whose parents had adopted her brother through open adoption. A few years later, the boy’s birth mother donated her eggs to the adoptive mother who used her husband’s sperm to fertilize the eggs and produce triplet girls.
I heard a story of children meeting who had the same sperm donor. I heard about a closed adoption opening because biologically related siblings found each other on Facebook. I learned about lesbian mothers taking turns getting pregnant and a gay couple who used a surrogate to produce their child.
Many children (a.k.a. “orphans”) adopted from other countries knew their histories or origins because adoptive parents had taken the initiative to gather this information. There were stories of children with different levels of openness in adoptions in a single family and stories of multiracial families.
The most amazing thing was that the classmates of my children were not uncomfortable talking about these differences in family construction. It gave me great hope for their generation.
There is not a simple answer to “who is in your family?” for many of us. But, it seems to me that if we can have an open heart like Becton, we can find ways to incorporate more “family members” who have a desire (or ought) to be part of our lives.