What Makes a Family? Love

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(photo courtesy of Gift of Adoption Fund)

The gift-wrapped package looked like it contained a pair of shoes. Teenaged Lauren watched while a special man in her life, Joe, opened her gift. Joe is not her biological father but has cared for her like one since she was a tiny girl. Inside the box were adoption papers. In a twist on the marriage proposal, Lauren was asking Joe, “Will you be my adopted father?” Of course, Joe and Lauren collapsed in tears and hugs. They recognized a simple fact. Being a family is not about blood ties.

Fourteen years ago on a hot July day in Hefei, China, my husband and I adopted our beloved fourth child, a daughter. We brought her home to her sister and two brothers on the other side of the world. The first weeks were rocky. She had her days and nights mixed up and would regularly awaken my daughter, with whom she was sharing a room. Invariably in the morning,  I would find my oldest child in a sleeping bag on the living room floor where she had decamped to escape the crying. Our new baby was also afraid of our boys and, to a lesser extent, her new dad. We reasoned that this was because in the orphanage where she had spent the first 11 months of her life, there were no males.

Before long, though, she was understanding us, laughing, playing, and walking. Her sister doted on her, and her brothers could make her laugh like no one else. Each afternoon after I had dropped my son off at preschool, I would take her to Panera Bread, where we would share a bowl of soup. Occasionally, we would have to suffer an ignorant or obnoxious question about her being adopted and whether she was really ours. Mostly, though, she just fit into the life of our family and became one of us. When I now look at my 15-year-old daughter, I can’t imagine ever having lived without her.

The adoption journey is not without its struggles. Sometimes unknown physical or emotional issues come to light. Some adoptees have identity crises or feelings of abandonment. The adoption process is anything but simple itself. Between the home studies and paperwork and waiting, it took us two full years to adopt our daughter. And the cost of adoption can be prohibitive.

Here in my hometown of Chicago, an adoptive couple in the north suburbs started a nonprofit to help families defray the many costs of adoption, particularly overseas adoptions, which require all kinds of fees as well as travel expenses. Gift of Adoption Fund has helped countless families grow through financial assistance that prioritizes families adopting children in the most urgent cases, such as those in foster care or with special needs. (Gift of Adoption Fund is a 501 (c) 3 charitable organization.)

Families come to be in so many different ways. Just as Lauren learned over the years that Joe was in every meaningful sense her true father, we have learned that what makes a family is the love and commitment to care for each other and to be there no matter what.

Planting Things

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IMG_1146I spent a recent afternoon strolling with some of my sisters through the University of Minnesota’s arboretum. It was a mild summer day: slightly overcast and on the cool side for the end of June in this northern Midwest locale. The Minneapolis-St. Paul area has been home for two of my sisters for many years, and a third recently moved to the area. That makes a visit to the Twin Cities even more of a draw for another Chicago-based sis and me. (I have eight sisters. Cue the oohs and ahs.)

Along with the majestic trees from which the arboretum derives its name, the park is home to numerous gardens growing everything from succulents to kitchen herbs to seemingly as many types of roses and lilies as you can name. As we wandered through the meticulously maintained grounds, stopping to admire fountains and sculptures and to take photos, I marveled at the time and care it takes to grow and maintain all these plants. I pictured gardeners lovingly tilling the soil, placing tender seedlings in it, watering and weeding.

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I myself am not much of a gardener, but when I was a child, I loved to spend time with my dad in his garden. If I helped weed, I would be allowed to place the tiny seeds for annuals gently in the soil and then water the plants as they miraculously went from seed to sprout to full grown flower. During our walk through the arboretum, my sisters and I reminisced about our father and his love for trees and flowers. We laughed and acted silly and forced passersby to take group photos of us in front of ponds or waterfalls.

Relationships are like plants. They must be lovingly tended. It takes time and attention to grow a close bond, time spent laughing, sharing confidences, building each other up and helping each other through difficult times. The inevitable weeds of conflict must be uprooted sometimes so that the lovely fruits of friendship and sisterhood can ripen.

Time spent in nature with my sisters was a beautiful gift this week. It reminds me that the roots developed in our families form the basis for who we will become. It encourages me to tend to those roots with my own children so that they too will carry on a meaningful and loving sibling relationship throughout their lives.

Long after the sun sets on the garden and the day lilies close their petals for the night, God’s gifts of nature abide in quiet magnificence until the dawning of the new day. May our lives mirror the beauty, tenacity, and strength of trees and flowers, granting joy and peace to those we encounter each and every day.

It’s All Relative

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I’m currently watching a fascinating show on the National Geographic channel entitled Genius, a biography of the great physicist Albert Einstein. Never having had a particularly scientific type of mind, I’ve been surprised at how much I enjoy learning about Einstein’s revolutionary discoveries. For instance, I enjoyed seeing how Einstein’s brain starts forming ideas about relativity while watching his time piece in a tedious math class.

Einstein proved that time is not absolute and that our perception of time moving forward is an illusion. I’m not sure I completely understand his ideas, but I do enjoy thinking about relativity in the simple terms in which he famously explained it. An hour spent with a pretty girl, he said, seems but a minute while a minute spent sitting on a hot stove would seem like an hour.

I was reminded of that idea on a recent walk in my neighborhood. Up ahead of me was a young woman pushing a stroller with a baby inside. The scene looked idyllic: a young mother with all the time in the world to care for and enjoy her child. But I know better. I was that young mother once. When my first child was born, I was beside myself with stress and worry. Every single task seemed difficult and new and challenging, and I was not sure I was doing any of it right. Had she had enough poops that day? Did she have a slight fever? Was she too warm, too cold, hungry, tired? And why would she not stop crying?

From my vantage point as the mother of four grown children, it seems so easy just to have one child, a child who can’t go anywhere or do much of anything without my say so, a child who can’t stay out past curfew or sass back or ask to do things I’m not ready to let her do. When my children were young, the days would crawl by at a snail’s pace. Even though they were perfectly clean, I would still give my kids a daily bath just to pass the time. Nowadays, I blink, and months have gone by while my teens and twenty somethings move ahead at the speed of light.

The one constant for me as a parent is how much I worry about my kids. I think that’s what makes grandparents so much more relaxed around their grandchildren. They have a slight distance that allows them to be calmer, more playful, and less stressed.

This idea was borne out for me recently when I listened to a fascinating NPR podcast called Invisibilia. The episode “The Problem With the Solution” describes the way mental illness is managed in a small Belgian town called Geel (pronounced “hail”). In Geel, people with severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia live with ordinary families and are considered “boarders.” While there is a hospital nearby and doctors help people manage their medications, no one in Geel tries to fix the mentally ill. They are simply allowed to be the way they are.

The reporters from Invisibilia discovered an important fact through learning about the town of Geel. These same victims of mental illness faired much worse when living with their own families. Indeed, one of Geel’s residents had a mentally ill son herself, and she described how hard it was to live with his behavior. What psychologists have discovered is that when people care too much, they are determined to fix the problems their loved ones have. On the other hand, non-related hosts or neighbors of the mentally ill have a detachment that allows them to accept these people the way the are. In this way, “it’s all relative” takes on a different meaning.

The great Albert Einstein certainly had his fair share of family drama, including a wife who suffered from depression and a son who attempted suicide. As a Jew, he was endangered by the rise of Nazism in Germany. He also objected to the use of scientific discovery to create weapons of mass destruction. But he looked at the world in such an endlessly fascinated way. He was convinced that observing nature was the way to solve all the mysteries of the universe. And he had a great determination to be the one to do so.

As the summer days go by, I will remind myself about the deceptive nature of time and do my best to slow it down and enjoy its passing.

 

 

 

Great Expectations

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I have grown used to my husband being the more common-sensical person in our marriage. With his take charge personality, he seems to know how to handle just about any situation. I have grown so used to this trait of his that I find myself disappointed when he is wrong about something or admits he doesn’t know what to do. I have this expectation that he will keep us safe and well-functioning as a family no matter what.

What a heavy burden that is to place upon a person! I think men in general carry a lot of emotional weight around, not really allowed by society to crack or show weakness. While we women also bear much responsibility in our families, we are given leave to vent, to ask for help, and to lean on others.

Expectations can be difficult to live with. When our child fails to meet our behavioral standards, our parental disappointment is felt keenly not only by ourselves, but by our kids as well. I know I have felt betrayed and disillusioned by catching my child in a lie or in finding out they were unkind to a friend. Parental expectations can also put undue pressure on our children. Right now, my youngest daughter is going through high school final exams. She wants to do well, and that fact contributes to her stress. But she also has to live with our expectations as parents that she excel academically. As often as I say to her, “Just do your best,” she knows in her heart that I am hoping for a perfect report card.

Our children, for their part, often have superhuman expectations of us as parents. As they get older and see our imperfections, as they realize we are not infallible, they lose some of the comfort and security that their wide-eyed innocence afforded them.

It’s hard to see our heroes fall. Recently, Tiger Woods was arrested for a DUI, to the disappointment of many fans who idolized him for his golfing prowess. It’s the same for other athletes, political leaders, artists, and anyone else who has attained a larger than life persona. We have set them on pedestals, and it is all too easy to fall off those exalted mounts.

On the other side lies cynicism. We start to doubt anyone who attains acclaim for great talent, public service, charity, or career success. We become jaded by scandal and the inevitable recognition that being human means making (sometimes huge) mistakes.

We need to attain a happy medium wherein we can admire and hope for the best in people, where we can encourage goodness and excellence without crushing someone’s spirit when they fail, where our expectations of each other are tempered by compassion and the recognition that we are all imperfect beings and that most of us are trying our best to be good people.

For my part, I will try not to expect my husband to be my constant rescuer. I will love my children unconditionally and let them know that nothing they could ever do will change how I feel about them. I will even try not to be so hard on myself when I inevitably stumble. Better to practice great encouragement than to saddle people with great expectations.

 

The Rest of Your Life

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You’ve probably heard someone say at some time, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” It’s the kind of comment we expect in our hard-charging, Type A culture. There have certainly been times in my life when I feel as if my to do list will never get done unless I burn the midnight oil. But the older I get, the more I recognize the wonderful restorative effects of rest.

Just today as I walked past the local library,  I overheard a mother explaining to her three young children that there would be a mandatory rest time when they got home. “Why?” the son wanted to know, with something of a whine in his voice. “Because Mommy needs some time to herself,” was the answer.

I had to smile, remembering so many times when my house was filled with young children, and it was all I could do to use the bathroom in peace. But I can also remember being a little girl myself and absolutely detesting both nap time and bedtime. Because I had a hard time falling asleep, I felt bored and trapped in my twin bed or on the rest time mats we used in afternoon kindergarten. Worse, at bedtime, not only would I not be sleepy, but I would imagine that the shapes and lumps I saw in the dark were ghosts and monsters.

As is true with many aspects of life, you never know a good thing until it’s gone. So many times in my adult life I have longed for just a 30-minute nap to get me through the day. More times than I can count, I would find myself on the couch reading to one of my children in the middle of the afternoon, and my eyes would always start to droop magically during the third picture book. Three’s a charm, I guess.

Ironically, after your children grow up and you retire from your hectic job, you find yourself awakening at four in the morning or at numerous times during the night. Sleep starts to elude you just when you actually have the time for it again.

But I think it would behoove adults, both young and old, to consider the benefits of a good night’s sleep and the occasional 40 winks on the couch. Study after study has shown that lack of sleep can cause weight gain, health problems, and both industrial and driving accidents.

Let’s not make that comment about sleeping when you’re dead a prophetic one. We all need rest where we can have time to ourselves to relax, sleep, and dream. Our to do lists – sometimes even our children – can wait.

Too Much to Dream

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(The Dream, Salvador Dali)

The other night, my husband was shouting in his sleep. He sounded like a character in an action thriller. When I woke him up to calm him, he said that he’d had a nightmare, one of the few he’s ever had in his life. Throughout our marriage, my husband has insisted that he doesn’t dream, and I have insisted that everyone dreams, but he may not remember his.

Dreams are freaky glimpses into the unconscious. Over the years I’ve had scary dreams, recurring dreams, and the occasional erotic dream. In many of my dreams I have to climb or traverse a great height. Sometimes I am in an unbelievably high roller coaster that terrifies me. I also often dream about being lost or losing something I need.

It’s interesting to try to interpret what my dreams mean. For example, the online “Dream Bible” explains my fear of heights in dreams as a fear of success. In truth, though, I am just afraid of heights, so dreaming of them is probably just a reflection of that anxiety. Indeed, psychologist Patrick McNamara, PhD., states that there is no validity to most dream interpretation. In Psychology Today, McNamara claims that so-called dream interpretation is usually very subjective. He does, however, believe that one day psychology will be able to crack the codes of our dreams and find the meaning therein. (“The Folly of Dream Interpretation,” July 29, 2013)

Why we dream is also something of a mystery. There are theories that dreams are a way of restoring the mind to balance, an indication of stress or anxiety, a way of spurring creativity, or even markers for some neuro-degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and dementia.

The other thing that fascinates me about dreams is how normal they seem while I’m in them but incoherent when I remember them upon waking. As an example, last night I had the following dream: I was in a big city and stopped at a Walgreen’s to buy underwear for my daughter. While I was there, a man offered to sell me silver dollars, which I have actually been planning to get from the bank for an Easter egg hunt. There was no underwear in my kid’s size, so I left to find another Walgreen’s. Somehow I was transported to Minnesota, where my sisters live, and I thought I was there for my niece’s wedding, but it turned out she was actually already married and pregnant. She got angry when I said we were going to “par-tay” because she couldn’t drink. Next thing I knew I was on the sidewalk, and my husband was walking toward me with a mouth full of teeth that had fallen out. I was alarmed and then even more so as I noticed that I too was losing a few teeth. (The Dream Bible would say this indicates anxiety about getting old. No kidding!) We decided to head to the hospital, but my husband wouldn’t listen to me about which direction to take. We drove past an old nightclub called Limelight and found ourselves in a pitch dark neighborhood. Then we came upon some glamorous and glitzy part of the city I had never seen. I awoke before we ever reached our destination, which is a recurring aspect of my dreams.

Dreams remain a fascinating mystery to me. But I am convinced that they are an indispensable safety valve for the brain. When I was in college, I would pull all-nighters to cram for a test or write a paper. On those occasions, as I would finally allow my body to rest, I would start to have waking dreams, sort of hallucinations as my overtaxed brain slipped into sleep.

As for my husband, he remains convinced that he doesn’t usually dream, and that belief will probably remain until the next time I awaken him for shouting in his sleep, “I’m gonna blow your f#*!ing head off!”

 

The Invisible Mom

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In the 1980s television series thirtysomething, the character Elliot Weston complains to his best friend and business partner Michael Steadman that they have become “invisible to teenage girls.” That remark really resonated with me as a new mother whose body was now a soft and nurturing landing place for my infant daughter instead of a curvy and sexy one men might find attractive.

That feeling of invisibility has changed over the years as my children have grown and I have experienced a different way of being invisible to teenagers. As a mom, I’m sort of like Mt. Everest – never-changing, solid, and just there. Immersed in their world of Snap Chat and Instagram, my kids seldom really notice me, except when they’re hungry or need money.

I’ve felt that same sense of invisibility in the hallways of the local high school. On the few occasions when I have been there during the school day, I will be walking down the hall and hear all kinds of profanity being shouted between teens who are blissfully unaware of the middle-aged woman in knee-length skirt and sensible shoes. It’s a bit jarring to hear, as is the sight of boys and girls canoodling in corners. This is their world, and I am just a vapor floating through it.

Still, there are some benefits to being invisible to teens. As frequent chauffeur for my kids and their friends, I have the ability to be a fly on the wall, listening to their teasing, gossip, and teenage patois, all while being perfectly unseen. The only way to break that spell of invisibility in the car is to interject my own comments, so I have learned to be the silent specter getting a glimpse into the teenage world.

On my recent visit to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, puppeteers did a skit depicting the story of a man gifted with a cloak of invisibility. Thus clad, the man was able to escape Death, who roamed the Earth ceaselessly in search of souls. Harry Potter himself uses the cloak to defeat the powers of evil represented by Lord Voldemort.

Invisibility can be both blessing and curse. It can hurt to be ignored by others because everyone wants to feel important, to feel recognized. I sometimes get annoyed or hurt by my kids’ seeming indifference. But invisibility can also be a gift, wherein one can be a spectator in life, observing, noticing, and learning.

I’m keeping my invisibility cloak handy for that next chance to gain insight into the world of my teens and their friends. Who knows what fascinations I may find?