In truth a family is what you make it. It is made strong, not by number of heads counted at the dinner table, but by the rituals you help family members create, by the memories you share, by the commitment of time, caring, and love you show to one another, and by the hopes for the future you have as individuals and as a unit. – Marge Kennedy
When I think about my life over the past few years, the closest analogy that comes to mind is a roller coaster ride. And, I despise roller coasters. The highs have been incredibly high with me waving my hands in euphoria and the lows have been suffocatingly dark and dreary. Yet, I have stood in the arena again and again and bravely faced all of the opponents that challenged me, refusing to back down, refusing to be thwarted. Each day, for me, is a delicate balancing act of managing my demons, checking my emotions and leveraging the ample opportunities that come my way. Every day, I tap dance and juggle, having learned to make lemonade from the copious bushels of lemons that have made their way to me.
I choose to do this without regret. I choose to do this without feeling looked over or left behind. I choose to do this, embracing the flaws that compose the mosaic of me because, without them, I would not be myself. And, inarguably, I have my days where it is harder to detach myself from the anxiety and frustration that sometimes comes with my daily regimen. Today felt like one of those days. In fact, today was a roller coaster ride on its own. We began the celebrations and ceremonies of our children moving up from elementary and middle school. We started the day clapping the 5th graders into school, signifying the last time they would enter the charming schoolhouse as students. Emotions were high and tears were shed and my boy marched boldly down the path, head held high and proud as a peacock. Later we sat in the small, hot auditorium, where, as a parent, I have sat countless times over the past 9 years laughing and crying at assemblies, plays, concerts and moving up ceremonies from kindergarten and 5th grade. I wept as I watched my son reveal himself to me in ways he has not demonstrated before. He assured us that he was maturing and understood what was important in life. He stepped outside after the ceremony and hugged me and his father and traveled around the front lawn of the school looking for teachers and other parents who have been familiar faces over the past six years and embraced them, sharing his love. And I was so proud.
As we drove home, I quietly reflected on all the families that were in attendance. I counted all the extended families that were there cheering and weeping, sharing their love with the young graduates. Many were familiar to us as we have seen them over the years and some feel like extended family to us. However, for my kids, my husband and I have the daunting task of playing all those roles as, in our family, there are no grandparents or aunts or uncles or cousins to cheer them on. No cards or notes to acknowledge their accomplishments or friendly faces showing up, especially for them, to show support. It’s mine and my husband’s job to fill in all the gaps. And – hopefully – my kids never notice the difference. I suppose there are many ways to approach our situation that is devoid of family. For me, I choose to fill the empty slots and ensure that my children never feel like they are missing out. Our little unit magically bridges the gaps and plugs the holes so there is no seepage. No love escapes without first being showered over my children. My goal, always, is to ensure that they grow up without deficiency.
Recently, my younger son and I were talking about a trip I was taking to visit with the family of a faraway friend. I talked a lot about my friend’s mom and how much she loves to bake and fills their home with multiple varieties of cookies and cakes. My son, always on a mission to satisfy his sweet tooth, grinned wildly at the notion of experiencing such reckless abandon and asked if he could stow himself away in my luggage or, better yet, would I purchase him his own seat on the plane to join in the fun. Sadly for us both, I had to decline his plea. Earlier this year a similar conversation arose about my friend’s mother and my son declared “I need a new grandmother! Sign me up!” It is moments like those that the reality creeps in for me and I wonder if my attempt at filling all the roles in my kids’ lives is sufficient…or if they just do a good job masking their disappointment.
Over the years, the burden seemed to have lessened but, recently, as my daily life has become more complex and there are more pressures heaped upon me, I have become acutely aware of the added stress of trying to be all things to our children. Sometimes, in moments of weakness, I allow myself to lament the absence of anyone else who might offer to supplement all that we can offer our children. I find myself envious of friends who can call upon relatives to fill in for them when they simply cannot be there or, amazingly, just need a break. And then I think about the conversations I have had with friends about asking for help or getting support when days are tough and, on the inside, I whisper, ever so softly, “can you give me a family?” It’s no longer a need for myself but now for my kids. Well, that’s not entirely true. I need it for myself because I need to lighten my load. I need to outsource some of the responsibility and loving. And the minute I even remotely feel ashamed by this truth I remember that family is a structure that exists for that very reason. It is there to provide support and to build a foundation to ensure that the house does not collapse. So, meekly, I cry “uncle” both literally and figuratively and know that it is perfectly acceptable to do so. My kids deserve it and so do I.
On the other hand, I feel a remarkable sense of accomplishment that we have been able to provide our children with all the love that would otherwise have been showered by an array of relatives. We have managed to compensate – to over-compensate – for all the missing puzzle pieces and, for that, I feel tremendous pride. When I look at my kids, I recognize how well-adjusted and confident they are and know that we gave that to them. There is never any doubt. We made it happen despite the absence of any support. We inherently knew how to love and nurture them and never once displayed our own disappointment – or dismay – over the missing family. Despite my younger son’s wistful fascinations over someone else’s grandma, aunt or cousin, I truly believe that he will not grow up remembering what was missing and, instead, will relish what was present. His gratitude will be ever-present and, in my opinion, no greater gift could ever be offered to him.
We have done a superb job of building a little network, here in our community, of friends and neighbors who showered my son with hugs and kisses today. He felt loved and appreciated. And, even though we congregated at lunch, just the four of us, and even though there was only one card to read, only one gift to open, we made sure it was substantial and meaningful so he didn’t wish for more. And, of course, he didn’t. Frankly, it’s all he knows and he is thankful for what he is offered. I also make sure that each weekend, as my older son takes his place on the lacrosse field, fighting hard to lead his team to victory, I take enough photos and videos to make him feel like the world is watching and cheering him on. And the other moms and dads pat him on the back and send their good wishes, making him feel acknowledged and proud.
As the little car of my roller coaster climbs to the top of the peak, I feel a sense of dread and anxiety about what I am missing and how I may default on the needs of my children. But once we crest the top and the wind is behind us and the inertia sends us careening to the bottom of the ride, I let my arms rise above me and release the fear and tension, knowing confidently that I got this. I can always wish for more (and I do and I will) but, when I get off the ride, I realize I had this all along.