Yesterday, the kids, the dogs and I (no husband, or bonus boy – that’s another story) drove to my sister’s house, where we had a ridiculously traditional Thanksgiving celebration with my mom, siblings, aunt, cousins, and everyone’s respective spouses. There was turkey, dog-walking, cards and football. It was a gorgeous Oklahoma day.
Growing up I didn’t realize how special my family was. I loved my family and looked forward to seeing them, but I didn’t realize how much support and unconditional love I received from them until I got older and was able to compare my family to other families. To be clear, my family has issues like every other family, but ultimately they collectively offer a tremendous amount of love and acceptance. That love and acceptance has been a pivotal part of me becoming who I am, which has become especially clear to me after becoming a parent.
While we were eating pumpkin pie and drinking coffee, my soon-t0-be 89-year-old grandmother confessed that when I “took on” the kids, she was worried. She said it was something she never would have done. (She just lived through the Depression and World War II, raised three kids in 900 square feet, worked an office job when most women didn’t work outside the home, etc. – it’s all relative). She said my grandpa wasn’t worried at all, though. She said he knew I’d be good at it. Considering my grandpa grew up at the Baptist Home for Children during the Depression, he knew a bit about being without parents, so learning of his confidence in me to be able to raise my kiddos meant a lot. What has meant the most, though, was that my entire family, regardless of what they might have thought privately, embraced my children immediately, even before I adopted them, and gave them the same support and unconditional love that they had given me from the beginning. They gave hugs, attention, smiles, fabulous food, advice about difficult times at school, more attention and more hugs.
Over the last several years I’ve read a lot about attachment, trauma and shame, and I’ve listed a lot of those books in the Resources on this blog. In the last year while both of my girls were living in psychiatric hospitals and we were participating in intensive family therapy, I experienced my girls’ epiphanies about acceptance, and witnessed them both turning a corner to begin loving and healing themselves. What’s amazing to me about all of this is that the key to that love of self begins with the connection and attachment we have to family. It’s like a little magic key that some of us receive at birth and that some of us have to work ridiculously hard to believe we’re worthy of and finally begin to accept. I recently viewed Brené Brown’s TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability” and it was like all my own experience and knowledge combined with everything I’ve learned from my husband in our marriage and via his research (he’s a fan of “if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist,” as is Dr. Brown), my dabbling in Buddhism over the last 20 years, as well as what I’ve learned from my study of my kids’ issues in the last 5 years was tied up in a not-at-all-neat bow. It’s the ultimate chicken and egg scenario – in order to feel worthy and feel the accompanying sense of love and belonging, one must believe one is worthy of love and belonging. It’s really that simple. Getting there is not. I learned with my girls that I could tell them all day long for five years that I loved them, that I was their mother, and that I would not leave them, but it never took. When I saw the shift happen is when each one of them individually came to the place via intensive family therapy where they could say out loud something to me of which they were deeply ashamed – it was always something an adult had done to them, never anything they were actually responsible for – and witness me not running away, holding them while they sobbed, telling them that what had happened was awful and something they didn’t deserve, empathizing, and witnessing me coming back next week for the next session. Their sense of shame was so strong that they knew, no matter what I told them, that if I knew the “real” them, I’d abandon them and never look back. They had to have courage to say out loud these things they were deeply ashamed of, be rewarded with connection, love and acceptance, and continue having the courage to begin accepting themselves, to abandon perfection, and to be vulnerable, which is the gateway to joy, love and fulfillment. I’m so proud of my children. They and my husband are the strongest people I know.
Though my grandfather was sure I’d be wonderful at raising my kids, I walked into my relationship with them knowing that they’d likely go back to their biological parents, as 70% of foster children in Oklahoma do. I had learned after years of work on my own abandonment issues that tackling my fear of loving these kids and watching them leave was the best thing I could do for myself and for them. When the opportunity to adopt them came about, I let go of all kinds of “perfection” I had in my head about what my family would look like, what kind of life I’d be able to give them monetarily, that kids should have a father, etc. I was completely unsure of what my path would actually look like, but I was excited for the possibilities, and I think that’s what my grandfather picked up on. Though my grandmother said she would never have embarked on a path like mine, without realizing it she and my grandfather along with my mother are the most basic parts of a family who is compassionate, loving and welcoming and which was the platform for me overcoming my own shame (we all have it), becoming vulnerable, and opening wholeheartedly to the possibilities and love that life brings, and I grow more thankful by the day for that gift.
As the days grow shorter, I am reminded of how difficult the next month will be. My children were removed from their biological family’s home the day after Christmas and put into a shelter. That’s a very tough anniversary. A a reminder, lots of people have a tough time with the holidays, so please be mindful of that. Last year my middle child had a breakdown on December 23rd that didn’t really end until she was taken to inpatient psychiatric care in early January by one of our local police officers. At the same time, I know that when I asked my kids what they were thankful for yesterday, each one individually said “family,” and that was not some “I know this is what my mom wants to hear” answer. Our extended family is a miracle for my children, and I use that word in its literal sense. As we move toward a new year, I hope that each of you can find your own vulnerability, embrace it, become open to the love that surrounds you and the miracle that is the connection between us all.