When I was almost nine years old, my father passed away from pancreatic cancer. Before that my mother developed breast cancer and suffered through treatments for it. Reflecting upon that time, I’m flabbergasted at how little my sister and I reacted to all of this. My intact, seemingly normal childhood was beleaguered by major bouts of sickness and death. I cannot imagine how my own children would fare dealt with a similar hand of fate.
Growing up, I hardly knew any kids who came from unconventional families. Everyone appeared to have both a mom and a dad, a point I felt much more sharply after my father died. Although my mom provided a relatively normal, stable, loving home life, and we stayed in our childhood home, somehow, to me, it seemed too quiet and maybe even remotely melancholy like some familial heat leaked through any minuscule cracks in the house. Something was missing.
Subconsciously, I searched for ways to seal those supposed cracks by finding surrogate families to learn from and observe. One was my childhood best friend’s family who lived around the corner and whose parents appeared younger and healthier with a baby sister – a possibility no longer existing in my own family — and two younger brothers who were exotic to me. The other was my aunt and uncle who lived in a large colonial house in the same town where my six cousins and our paternal grandmother filled the house.
I gained a different kind of security and contentment seeing these large, stable families together than from my own. Maybe what I wanted for my own future family resided in what I witnessed. Strong, healthy parents present and accounted for; playful, talkative kids milling about; comfortable, warm homes; little to no visible trauma or drama. Granted, as an unassuming kid, I probably didn’t recognize any real problems. As an adult, you start wondering what family doesn’t have a dysfunction.
And I’m not the only one who consciously or subconsciously sought out surrogate families. Due to upsetting circumstances, my mom was lovingly raised by her grandparents and various maiden aunts and bachelor uncles. My husband fondly recalls an ex-girlfriend’s dad who he mentions more than the girl! One of his cousins enjoyed family vacations and outings with his family and treasured those moments years later. During her teens, a friend’s relative gained custody of and adopted her after she endured a troubled home life. She praises the relative with saving her life.
Even though I now live and spend time with my husband and two children, a secure, loving family unit, I wonder if that’s only my perception. Sure, it seems very nice, but what if it’s not enough for my kids? We fight; we run into problems; we handle extra issues having a special needs child; despite the love. As children, will they see our family as enough and what they want; or will they seek out other families and people for support, guidance and role model purposes? And is that so destructive to our family?
Since my daughter spends several extra hours at school with teachers, therapists and aides, I suppose she already found a “family” to connect with who offer her help in overcoming or at least managing her disability. Even though my son spends a lot of time with his dad, he yearns for an older brother to teach him things and be his friend. Or he asks for a cute baby sister. Maybe all children need their own surrogate families to accommodate the gaps, no matter how small.
My surrogate families helped me connect to a family when I needed one more steady and conventional than my own. Time has passed, and I’ve lost touch with one family and only see my relatives on occasion, but both families reside in my heart, and I reflect on the values they offered me as I raise my own family, hoping that it’s enough.
This is an original post for Jersey Moms Blog by M.B. Sanok, a New Jersey mom.
Photo credit given to Computer Weekly.