Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Tale of Two Families

It's interesting being an adult child. All growing up, you only see one family and can't imagine how a family might be run differently or behave differently. Then you meet people from different families and it's kind of mind-blowing. Last month, after thinking a lot about Nature? Nurture? Neither? More? and what my goal is as a parent, I was looking up my friends' Christmas photos on Facebook. I ran into a friend of mine who was in my stake during my youth. His parents had stake callings and sometimes chaperoned the youth dances, so I went through his pictures, curious to find out how the past decade had changed his family. They are happy, cheery, and surrounded by Christmas decorations: poinsettias and evergreens galore! A couple of the pictures gave me pause.

I knew my friend, Dan, from stake dances and youth conferences and he graduated high school the same year I did. He went on a mission, graduated from BYU, met the love of his life there and moved to Massachusetts to marry that love, Michael, this past June. I don't know all of his story, but I know that his journey as a gay Mormon has put some strain on his family, so when his Facebook status said that he was home for the holidays, I thought, "Home? As in Illinois? No. He must mean he's settled in his new apartment from that recent move." But I looked, and no, he meant home in Illinois. 

So I was surprised that he was excited to go back to Illinois for Christmas (O'Hare? Really? At Christmastime?). The first picture that spoke to me was of Dan's sister and Michael in a picture together with their arms around each other. Wow, I thought, that family must be doing something right. The second picture was of Dan's entire family: parents and siblings and Michael, all together. Smiles. 

Now, I have personal experience with "Hmm. How do we look like we like each other without actually having to like each other" pictures, and these are not those. You know when someone smiles, really smiles, their eyes smile? That's what that picture is.

On the other end of the spectrum, I have a friend I met in Provo. She's a church-going, calling magnifying, married in the temple, mom to a little girl and another on the way. Her husband just scored his dream job and they are living the dream. You might think her parents can die happy- after all, every one is temple-married and sealed and all that jazz. You'd think that, that is, if they knew they were grandparents. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, the attitude of unconditional love was lost and so my friend, "Renee", has not spoken to her parents in over 5 years. In fact, I use a made-up name because she does not want her family to find her through internet searches.

Renee doesn't feel safe with her parents and doesn't want her children to be exposed to the dynamics in her family, so she cut them off entirely. If you were to ask Renee's parents if they love her, they would probably say, "Yes!" But to her, their actions haven't said that and so for the time being, and perhaps for the rest of their lives, they can not have a relationship with her.

Renee might represent an extreme case, but it's not so far-fetched that it doesn't exist. It does. And when I think of Dan and Renee's families, I wonder what it was exactly, that Dan's family did to be able to assure Dan that he is loved and a welcome member of their family. I know that he had been open on some level about his journey surrounding his sexual orientation and that his parents were there for him even when he was a teen. And then, by the time Christmas 2010 came along, he was excited to come home, and the family there was loving and inclusive. This is a feat considering that Mormons and gays don't really have the best track record for peace and acceptance. His parents did something right since he made it through his teen and early 20s years without giving up on them or himself.

And then I bring it back to my own family. I have a Margaret and an Isaac. I hope that as I parent, they feel assured that I really do love them unconditionally, and I hope they know they can come to me with all the messy details of their lives. I remember my teen years and the distress I went through that I didn't think I could talk about to anyone- let alone my parents. And yet, out there, there are parents who are able to help their children make that jump into personhood. I want to be one of those parents.

And that is the issue I wrestle with most as a parent. How do make sure that my children really feel loved and accepted? How do I make sure that they feel safe with me now and in the future? Every day I hope that the things I do translate into, "You are welcome here."


  1. I think a big part of being a good parent is letting your child do what you may see as a mistake. Sometimes it is, and they grow and learn. Sometimes it isn't, and you learn.

  2. I think the thing to remember is that you also "have a McKay" who is very loving and tender. You parent as a team and together will teach your children about unconditional love as they observe how you treat each other. Example is a great instructor.

  3. Yeah. There were times when I was growing up that I did what my parents told me to- and then later I look back and wish I had gone with my own gut because I think it would have been a better choice for me even though it would have upset my parents.

    I also cringe at reading the end of this post of mine- "How do I make sure..." I try not to use language like that because I know in the end, there are no guarantees. Oh well.

  4. The first year my husband and I were married, we argued almost every Saturday. It took that whole year for me to figure out why every Saturday, he'd get up at noon and call me lazy and spoiled. After all, I'd been up since 7! I'd done laundry and dishes! I'd tidied the house! I was working full time and in grad school, so I'd also done homework and written papers! How could he roll out of bed at noon or later and call *me* lazy?
    Finally I figured it out - his family wear pajamas ONLY TO SLEEP. The second they're awake, they put on clothes. They do not put on pajamas until they are climbing into bed.
    My family considers it a fabulous day when we can spend an entire Saturday in pjs, doing chores at home, without having to get dressed and go anywhere.
    For a few months, as soon as I heard him stirring, I'd run to put on real clothes. But I began to resent that and it put me on edge all morning, listening for him.
    Finally I bought some yoga pants and such. *I* feel like I'm wearing pajamas, *he* sees 'real' clothes, we're both happier. It's a fairly ridiculous little dance, but life is smoother. Ahhh, marriage and compromises.

  5. This is such a well done post! Really wonderful. You should submit it to fMh or Exponent!

    I, too, have always wanted to be the type of parent that my children are truly happy to come home to and share their lives with, but I find myself wondering what the day to day choices and methods are that create that outcome. I would guess being accepting of who they are at ALL ages and stages is the right path, but I get worried about how I will react to the unknown as they get older and come into personhood. I can hope it will come naturally, but reminders to keep the right perspective are always helpful.

  6. My mom is the type of parent who expresses judgment on other people in front of her children. So of course, when I made mistakes as a youth, I did my very best to keep them secret from her. I did not want to be judged by her.

    How do you ensure you child stay open and trusting you? Like you said, there are no guarantees, but I think if we keep reminding ourselves to have unconditional love, to accept that our children will make mistakes, to accept that sometimes WE will be the ones who are wrong, or that there might not BE a right or wrong, to keep our arms open and remember to hug rather than scold. Why do children cut us off? Because they fear judgment, because we don't give them enough freedom or enough credit. I guess we just need to remember what it's like to be a kid. And I think it's really important that we never punish our kids by withdrawing our love. And extend our loving attitude to everyone in our lives.

  7. I think about this same thing quite often. I wonder what I can do to help facilitate a safe environment in my home. For myself, I think the key is self control. I know there will be situations where my children will tell me things and my initial reaction will be to scold or correct. While I know it will be important to teach and even correct at times, I think the way we handle the emotions around the situation can make all the difference. It is that initial reaction that will set the tone for how the situation is dealt with. I know that when I make a mistake, I still want to be understood and have my feelings validated and I know children are the same way-- we don't magically become adults and want to be listened to. Also, I think it's really important to be able to appropriately apologize to our children when we have made a mistake or reacted in a way we didn't intend to. Anyway, that's what I've come up with so far.

  8. I'm glad I'm not alone. That I have a loving and supportive spouse, and Heavenly Parents I can turn to for help. *B


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