Our non-traditional family and why it matters

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The non-traditional part of our family

I forget about the unusual origins of my family until I am asked a question or view another family that shares some of our qualities. This happened three times this past week and became a good way to reflect on how far we have come as a society over the past 25 years – and how far we still have to go.

  1. South Dakota recently passed a bill and was signed by the governor that allows adoption agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ couples, single parents, mixed faith and inter-racial couples when it determines placement for children from the foster care system. Since there are many more children in the foster care system than there are prospective parents, this means that children will wait longer for permanent placement. Or, they may never find a forever family. Multiple studies have shown that children raised in non-traditional families function as well as those children raised in traditional families. South Dakota is sacrificing children’s futures due to religious beliefs.
  2. A woman who has acted as a surrogate parent for another couple questioned whether I had a difficult time separating  emotionally from my egg donor children. While I did have emotional moments when the children were young, they have been replaced by a thankfulness for the ability to connect with these three kids as teenagers/young adults. I see my current role as extended family, providing emotional support and fun times that a day-to-day parent is not afforded.
  3. One of my daughters classmates was featured in the local paper this week. His single mother died when he was in middle school and his extended family lived out-of-state. He was taken in by his best friend’s family, where he often lived during his mother’s illness. Over the past 4 years, this couple have become “Mom” and “Dad”.  The parents are white, the young man is black.

Our family is non-traditional: 2 white heterosexual parents, 3 biological children, 3 children via egg donation to another couple and 2 Asian adopted children. 25 years ago when my husband and I were first considering the idea of egg donation for a good friend, we decided that it was to be kept a secret from our extended family. Due to religious reasons, my friend’s family was also not made aware of the origin of a triplet pregnancy. As society changed and the children grew older, the story was explained to relatives and friends. By this time, both families were well established in 2 different communities separated by 5 states and the reactions were overwhelmingly positive.

Adoption stories have undergone the same transition over the years. Many children adopted domestically in the 1940’s thru 1960’s were not informed that they were adopted. As society changed and became more accepting of adoption, as well as the emotional damage that was noted when young adults discovered their hidden origins, adoption became more open and celebrated. Now you can make the cover of People magazine if you are a celebrity in your late 40’s who adopts a baby.

Early international adoptees were seldom connected to their original culture and parents were instructed to raise the children as if they were white and their biologic children. The trouble was that the outside world did not see them as “white” when they became adults, and these adoptees had to navigate the world between 2 cultures, one of which they had few connections to. Diversity training for potential adoptive parents is now part of the adoption process. The Asian culture camp that we attend each summer has many discussions about culture, identity and diversity.

The role of  mom/parent has been the most rewarding/difficult part of my adult life and one I would not trade for any other experience that I have had. Being able to offer that opportunity to a friend was an easy choice despite the knowledge that there may be bumps in the road as the children became older.  Providing a home to children born in another country was also an easy choice as I knew that love developed while caring for a child and was not necessarily automatic. Each of these choices was made available to me as a white heterosexual female married to a white male who shared a mainstream religion. We are not special and should not be any more privileged than a gay biracial couple who is able to meet the same requirements for providing a home for a child in need of a forever family. Religion, sexual orientation and skin color are only part of who we are as individuals. Loving children and providing them with a home and future should be open to all of us.

The Kids are Allright – part 2

Most of our modern-day heroes are athletes, those who have performed heroic acts or  have started a social justice movement.  My hero is neither of these. She is heroic because she continues to strive each day for the life of a normal 22-year-old, despite both past and present obstacles. C will be graduating from a 4 year college in May, despite being told that a college degree was probably beyond her reach due to learning disabilities induced by cancer treatment. Her future after college remains uncertain, but that has been her life since she was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor at age 12.

C is Baby B of the triplets. See this previous post, My Mothering Story, for background history. She could always make us laugh with her antics and jokes. She was a very good athlete, playing on a top-level soccer team and loving snowboarding. All of that started to change after age 12 – she became more clumsy in sports and adopted a  withdrawn personality.  Much of this was initially attributed to adolescence and the additional stress at home as her parents were recently separated and starting an acrimonious divorce.  But as her symptoms worsened over the summer, her mother and pediatrician became more concerned that there may be other causes.  I received a phone call in September that a small brain tumor had been found on CT and C would need surgery to remove it.  These are the times that you really hate being a doctor.  I knew that brain tumors in children are very seldom benign and although treatment has improved, the side effects of the treatment can be life altering.  I wanted to be encouraging to C’s family, but yet realistic.  When we received the surgeons report about malignancy, I was glad that I had chosen to travel to be there. C had 2 moms present for the next 3 days, helping her in and out of bed, feeding her and keeping her entertained. My physical  connection to the triplets was now more relevant, as I was asked many questions about my family medical history. My emotional connection was more complex. Although I was worried and concerned about the future for C, my reaction would have been much more intense if she had been one of my 5 children living at home, biologic or adopted.

The next year of radiation/chemo treatment for C was rocky at best.  She had an acute reaction to the radiation after only a few treatments and it needed to be discontinued in order to prevent her from dying.  Because of her body’s severe reaction, she had failure of multiple endocrine organ systems that should not have been affected – thyroid, ovaries, growth hormone.  When she felt well enough, she had a tutor that provided home schooling.  Her friends, initially coming by frequently and calling, soon dropped off.  When C finally was able to return to school a year later, most of her friends had moved on in their social circles.  C was not the same friend they had known – she was much more reserved and her endurance was barely able to tolerate a full school day, much less sports. The few radiation doses that she had had caused permanent learning disabilities – retaining information often required reading the same words 3-4 times. She was given many accommodations in high school in order to pass her classes and put in twice the work as her siblings, still getting lower grades. As the other students started learning how to drive, she still had balance issues that prevented her from getting behind the wheel.  Her siblings moved away to start college, while she stayed close to home and attended a local college.

I had the opportunity to spend a full week with C in the summer of 2012 when she accompanied me and my daughter on a mission trip to Bolivia, where we worked at a children’s home.  Studying abroad, like her siblings had done, was not a possibility given her ongoing medical issues.  Her mom and I thought this would be a good substitute for that lost experience.  Both girls had a wonderful time interacting with the children and helping with construction projects. Despite her balance issues and fear of heights, she walked across a hanging bridge, hiked to a waterfall and into a river and let me take pics of her standing near the edge of a cliff.

C’s life is not what she or either of her mom’s would have wanted it to be.  She is my hero because of what she has done with what life has handed her.  She tries to do the hard things (college) even knowing she will have to work much harder and it would be easier to work a low paying job. She humors me by standing near the edge of a cliff so I can get a great photo, even though she is terrified she will fall over the edge.  And the photo was great and is now the front cover of the scrapbook I made for her of the trip!  Just like so many young college graduates this spring,  she will struggle with making decisions for her future. But struggling and the unknown are nothing new for C – that is what her life has been about since age 12.