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.

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.

In the Scrum

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18157322_1591400950892487_212723468669144388_nLast weekend, I had the opportunity to watch my son and his team compete in the Rugby National Championship in Denver, Colorado. Four top teams from small colleges across the country met to battle it out on the field in a sport that is unfamiliar to most Americans.

Until my son started playing rugby in his senior year of high school, I was unfamiliar with such terms as “line out,” “ruck,” “knock on,” and “scrum.” Fans at his games were mostly mystified by this sport that looks like football but is so different from that iconic American game. Luckily for us, our announcer would explain each referee call and other action so that, slowly but surely, we are learning the ins and outs of a game developed in the UK during the 18th and 19th Centuries.

My son’s success in rugby is not at all a surprise to me. When he was four years old, he told me he wanted to play that game where “all the guys pile on top of each other.” Sure enough, by age 10 he was playing tackle football and enjoyed laying out his opponents from his spot on the defensive line. Total fearlessness made him an excellent defensive tackle. He had the good fortune to be accepted into a great college in California where he continues to play American football and his more recent passion, rugby.

Over the weekend, I was able to see the camaraderie of the young men both on and off the field. And as I watched the odd formation known as the scrum, I saw it as a kind of metaphor for the relationship and purpose of these boys who are quickly becoming men. In the scrum, teammates literally hook themselves together in a unit, bearing down and pushing against a group of opponents, both sides attempting to move and gain possession of the ball. It’s a moment of intensity and even intimacy, as the teammates are joined in a single goal.

The Claremont Colleges Rugby Football team became the National Champions in a resounding victory of 65-0 against the Tufts University Jumbos. Words can’t express how elated my son’s team was at their tremendous feat. During the awards ceremony, they were irrepressible, cheering each other and teasing, clearly a band of brothers. But what meant the most to me was the award my son received: one for being the heart of the team off the field. Knowing that he means this much to his fellow teammates and coaches is to me the most meaningful thing to come out of his rugby experience.

Long after these young men hang up their football and rugby cleats, they will be out in the world working, raising families, and contributing to society. After seeing how they have connected with each other and how they have committed to being the best at something tough, gritty, and fierce, I have no doubt they will do great things. And I am so very grateful that my son is a part of something bigger than himself, something that will serve to make him more selfless, determined, and bonded to others as he continues on his journey to adulthood.

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?

The Spectacular Now

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Chicago’s Art Institute recently announced that it will soon be displaying the world-famous painting known as Whistler’s Mother. The portrait, known as the “Victorian Mona Lisa,” features the simple composition of an older woman sitting in profile and looking ahead. While most portraits depict an individual head on, Whistler’s painting almost looks as if he were catching a glimpse of his mother in repose.

What strikes me when I gaze at Whistler’s Mother is her absolute stillness. While most mothers are busy doing, this portrait seems to capture a woman simply being.

In our modern age, it is a radical move to practice simply being. While life can only be lived in the present, human beings persist in either dwelling on the past or looking to the future. As the philosopher Blaise Pascal puts it,

The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.

Pascal’s statement reminds me of playing pretend with my siblings when I was young. One of our favorite games was called “Journey,” in which we pretended to be pioneers getting ready for a journey out West. But our play consisted entirely of preparation: collecting our stores, readying the wagon etc. We seldom, if ever, got started on our journey.

I am particularly prone to this future-leaning tendency. My mind is always scanning the horizon for what comes next. I need to plan. What items does my daughter need for school? What holiday do I need to prepare for? What am I serving for dinner? I make notes and lists for myself. Obviously, some planning is necessary. We can’t simply hurtle from one moment to the next without being aware of our schedules. But we tend to be so fixated on the destination that we don’t enjoy the journey.

My family drives through Michigan on a regular basis to visit relatives in Detroit. Our goal is always to get there as quickly and painlessly as possible. I have often fantasized about getting in the car with my children and starting the drive, but instead of high-tailing it to the Motor City, we would stop whenever and wherever we wanted to. A detour to the sandy beaches of Lake Michigan or a winery or the now-closed Kellogg’s Company attraction, Cereal City: we would take our time and just enjoy being together.

What is more likely to happen nowadays on a trip with my children is that they will be submerged in their music and their smart phones, barely glancing up to notice natural scenery or the skyline of a new city. Last fall we brought my youngest with us to visit her brother in college out in California. We tried interesting her in the look and feel of the campus, but she was 2,000 miles away, communing with her friends back home.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to have diversions, especially for young children on a long car trip. But I feel we have lost something in the process: an appreciation of the here and now. For my part, I would like to practice the stillness and “being-ness” of Whistler’s Mother. Perhaps her age-old wisdom would help me dwell in the spectacular now.