This is the first in our What is Family? blog series in honor of the season. Your favorite bloggers write about what family means to them. Come back tomorrow for the next post in the series.
The photo arrived the way many photos do these days; I was tagged on Facebook in order to see it. The dress eighteen-month-old Cora wore was one my daughter, Saskia, had worn and loved and I carefully chose it for Cora, because she’s family—and because the dress had family provenance. Let me explain: Saskia’s aunt Laura made the dress. Laura is married to my husband’s brother (son from their dad’s first marriage). Cora is Saskia’s cousin, because Margery is her birth mom’s sister (from their dad’s second marriage). Following me?
In my family many relationships come without exact names. Our five-year-old-daughter is adopted—and it’s an open adoption, so there are many family members that “belong” to her, Cora and Margery as examples, and obviously her birth mom, Caroline, whom Saskia calls Auntie Cece. While adoption highlighted this truth, it was already a given in my family—and maybe in yours, too. Families tend to be complicated, rich entities. Over time, through experience, they can transform from neat and tidy to somewhat overgrown—and interesting.
My parents divorced when I was in elementary school. They remarried. While I never knew my stepparents’ families well, I knew some of them. I also got a stepsister out of the deal. During one visit to New York, where none of us lived, my stepsister’s dad came to our hotel to see his daughter. My stepfather’s dad declared to my children that as Emily’s dad he was “kind of another grandpa.” A tall, wiry, energetic and somewhat hammy guy, my kids were more than game for a fun grandparent-like addition. Had we spent more time together, this could have become more tangible, I bet. A few years after that, my stepsister’s sister (technically, her half-sister, if you want to be technical) stayed at our house the night before our shared sister’s wedding, for convenience’s sake. It felt easy, though, and natural; after all, we were both sisters of the bride. If not sisters, by then ourselves, I think it’s fair to say we felt sisterly, especially in our shared love for Em.
Whenever people used to ask me whether I felt sad that my parents divorced, I’d say I wasn’t. “Without their divorce I wouldn’t have Emily,” was my answer (still is).
Is my cousin’s wife’s sister my cousin? I adore her, so surely, in a way, she is—or can be. Is my cousin’s ex-wife my cousin still? We think so. I don’t mean this in a flip and offhanded way; I guess that I think family is complicated enough that you might as well hold those you want to love alongside those you’ve been handed without a choice. Maybe this is part of why adoption didn’t seem entirely foreign to me. Some aspect of that choice felt expansive, as if we’d only embraced a different (admittedly complex) spin on that notion that you can reach towards family, and think outside the most simple definition about who belongs and who doesn’t.
While it’s really hard to explain adoption to a five-year-old—and at times, I fear what the conversations will be with a ten- or fifteen-year-old—the notion that guides me is this: more love is more love. And knowing so much of her family, the ones brought via her mom—even without neat words to describe all of our relationships—feels very warm. I feel like we all have Saskia’s back. So last week when she informed me I am not her mom, I asked what she meant. “Auntie Cece is my mom,” she said.
I heard a little hint of challenge. I took a deep breath. “Well, I’m your mom,” I said as directly and without revealing that she’d stolen my breath as I possibly could manage. “And Auntie Cece is your mom, too.”
“I have two moms!” she exclaimed.
“That’s right,” I agreed. More love may be more love; it’s also a lot to wrap your mind around—for her and for me. I gave her a hug and she hugged me back. I could feel her relief that she could say this and it was fine to say and that I know I’m her mom—and want her to know that, too.
“And one dad,” she added.
That’s another story for way later (we’ve never met her birth father) and so I nodded.