Recently I attended a memorial service held for my mom’s oldest sister. My aunt graduated in the same small high school class as my dad in one of those rural communities where it seems everyone knows everyone. While my parents moved from this small town when I was young, our family’s frequent visits to extended family and friends in the area means that the larger community knew my parents, my brother, and me on sight.
After the service, many people approached me to talk, either because they thought I was my mother or saw the remarkable resemblance I bear to her and assumed I was her daughter. Each one of them asked me about her and how she was doing. Each of them also knows my dad. But not a single one of them asked about him – I assume this is because they divorced years ago and there seems to be an unspoken social code that we don’t talk about the “ex.” It started to bother me after a while as I perceived that half of me was being ignored or even shunned due to social convention.
At 43 years old, I still felt the draw to split, to align myself with either my mom OR my dad. What must this be like for a child? There is no way they can hold onto their sense of self when we force their young, immature hearts and minds to chose between parents.
As an adoptive parent, I’ve come to be keenly aware of the existence of the others in my daughter’s life. When I coo about her being my girl and the sweetness we shared when I nursed her as a baby, if I ignore the fact that she grew in another woman’s belly, I deny a very important part of her reality. When I acknowledge the caring this woman had for her and express my gratitude for the amazing gift she gave us in bringing our daughter to life, it creates the space my girl needs to curl up in my lap and rest in the sweetness I hold for her. If I deny the existence of my child’s birth family or I am stingy and condemning with my acceptance of them, I force my daughter to choose, maybe solely on a subconscious level, between me and them. When I so subtlety deny her this invitation of her whole self, she must pick between me and her birth mom. How can this not affect her ability to relax completely into my love for who she is?
In a move to protect and guide our children, parents can get wrapped up in an us-vs-them dynamic. We want to protect them from abandonment, messy divorces, memories of abuse and social dynamics we ourselves either fear or don’t understand. Our longing for a better life for our children can lead to the use of the other parent’s life choices as a cautionary tale. And quite frankly, we fear that if we aren’t careful, our children will be more attracted to their rosy perception of the other parent than what we know to be our imperfect selves. The unintended resulting problem is that we end up pitting our children against parts of themselves, forcing them to choose (whether inwardly or outwardly) between their various parents.
As we strive to create the conditions our children need to grow and mature, we need to extend a complete invitation to all of who they are and where they come from. This is not always easy. Life and relationships are very messy. We must move beyond situations and events, beyond approval or agreement, to find and share the good and the caring that every parent who touches their lives brings to them.