The Sun-Drenched Chaos of Family

The Sun-Drenched Chaos of Family

By Laura Petelle

This is the final post in our What is Family? blog series. Click here to read all of the posts in the series.

PetelleThose early years all blend together, from when I was about three until I was maybe twelve. It’s one long summer of sand and sun, bare feet and itchy clothes.

Every summer, for twenty-seven years, my mom, her brothers and sister, and all of the spouses and kids, made their way by car and plane, from Illinois, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Kentucky to The Beach.

That’s what we called it—The Beach. It was Ocean City, Maryland, but it didn’t need a full name. We anticipated it all summer and cried when it was over.

It wasn’t until I got older that I appreciated what the adults gave up for us to be close to our grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. It’s not everybody’s idea of fun to spend a week with their parents, adult siblings, and a herd of noisy children in close quarters, especially if it’s the only vacation of the year.

We children never knew how much work went into this sublime sun-drenched week—the dozens of loads of laundry, the hundreds of sandwiches, the scores of mediated spats. For us kids, it was a week of sheer bliss, packed into two condos with all of our cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents. We had freedom and a pack of built-in playmates, plus time at the beach, with acres of sand and crashing waves.

In the end, there were thirteen cousins. Nell, Big Mike, and I were the oldest, and I desperately wanted to be included with them rather than the three Bubbas—Pat, Chris, and Brian—who were all the same age and came next, two years after me. After them were Danny, Kate-o, and Kevin. Then Jamie and Michael, the same age, and last of all Will and Rachel. But what I remember most about those years are my aunts. I had four of them, plus my mother, with Aunts Cathie and Carolyn playing the young “cool” aunts. What stands out most about those earliest years is Aunt Janet, Aunt Ellen, and my mother—a trifecta of mothering.

In those days at the beach, when I was waist-high and the world seemed to exist in two distinct levels—those of us whose heads didn’t reach the countertops and those who stood near the ceiling—my mother was suddenly multiplied. I would patter around the condos busy doing “errands” until confronted by a woman’s knees and a kind, smiling voice. I would look up – up – up and see my mother, or Aunt Janet, or Aunt Ellen inquiring about the events of my little world.

In that wonderful week, I would walk up to my Aunt Janet just as imperiously as I would my own mother and demand that she “goop me” as my mother was busy smearing sunblock on one of her nephews. I would beg and whine to Aunt Ellen for extra donut holes as if she were my own mother—no company manners there. And I watched as my mother adopted nine extra children as her own, changing diapers and making lunch for a baker’s dozen of children.

Of course their husbands were there too. When I think of my uncles, I remember them reading the Washington Post, and if you asked nicely, Uncle Bob or Uncle Gene would usually be able to find you the comics section. Uncle Dick and Uncle Jack and my dad were the lifeguards and mission commanders, organizing the massive trek down to the beach every morning, assigning this cousin to carry the umbrella, that one to carry two chairs, this one to carry the blanket. They decided when we could get in the water and how deep we could go, and they took the babies into the shallows to splash in the waves.

They were always smiling, my aunts and my uncles. The years seemed to drop away from them at The Beach. They have all grown wrinkles and bellies and gray hair with age, but still when they smile I am transported back to the eternal summer of The Beach. At The Beach they were children, teenagers. Uncle Dick knew the best way to dig a hole in the sand. Uncle Bob told the same joke over and over—and we always fell for it. Aunt Ellen would nearly always give in, with a look of disapproval that was never effective because her eyes were twinkling, when we teased her for an extra donut hole. And my mother seemed like a girl, laughing and teasing, more carefree than she ever seemed at home.

They would sit around the adult table long after dinner was done, retelling family stories as we hung over the couches or crawled into their laps or played quietly with our toys in the deepening dusk. Some of the stories were the same every year—the time Nell switched all the tags on the wedding presents, the time Chris fell asleep with a mouth full of hamburger—and some would have a sudden resurrection from the depths of memory. We listened hungrily to learn the stories that made us family, so that we too could repeat them one day

The room was full of laughter, so loud it would echo through my child-sized head, sometimes hurting my ears. The laughter was almost a living thing. Was this what being an adult was like? This endless laughter? I would shift in my seat, itching where the sand was still in my clothes, bask in the salty sea breeze that rolled in from the waves, and revel in the happiness around me.

My aunts and uncles grew older, and inevitably I did too. I stretched from childhood into gawky adolescence, and eventually slid into adulthood, without gaining the extra inches I had so hoped for. My uncles grew bellies and my aunts’ capable arms began to sag. They grew wrinkles from mortgages, gray hair from driving lessons, and those knees I so loved began to resemble elephants’. In time, the chill hand of death touched our family, and I saw my uncles cry. In time, I learned that family meant tears of sorrow as well as tears of laughter.

Now, when we gather as a family, some faces gone from us and some new to the clan, we cousins can join in when the stories are retold. And now, when my mom and Aunt Ellen and Aunt Janet smile, their faces relax into labyrinths of lines and those who admit it wear their gray hair like crowns. But in their happy faces and sparkling eyes, I can see more than a score of summers stretching out behind them, smell the sea air of my childhood, hear the lonely call of the gulls across the years. I see them as young wives, and harried mothers of teenagers, and a wonderful trinity of mothers, six knees all in a row, smiling down at me like a benediction.

Laura Petelle is an attorney, author, and mother of two who writes frequently on parenting and education. She lives in Peoria, Ill., and is on the web at

Click here for all of the posts in the What is Family? blog series.


Anchors Aweigh

Anchors Aweigh

Kristina Wright

Next in our What is Family? blog series. Your favorite bloggers write about what family means to them. Come back tomorrow for the next post in the series.

Anchors AweighAfter a whirlwind courtship and less than three weeks spent together, I married a Navy man eight short months after I met him. In twenty-three years, we have been apart for every major holiday at least once. We have missed so many wedding anniversaries that it was a novelty to spend our anniversary together. (In fact, our wedding had to be rescheduled three times to accommodate his ship’s schedule.) But we were lucky. For nineteen years, we only missed one Christmas—our second Christmas together, when he was deployed through mid-January. That year we celebrated Christmas on January 17 when he returned, because that’s what military families do—celebrate holidays when you can, as best you can.

For nineteen years, it was just the two of us. The oddball childless military couple, a team of two. I was alone for much of that time thanks to deployments and training and duty days. I’ve always been a loner, but it takes a strong personality to embrace it, year after year, in the unpredictable way of military life. The old saying that a ship’s schedule is written in liquid Jell-O is not far from the truth—I learned to use pencil in my date book. I learned to have a Plan B for anything I wanted to do. I learned that tickets bought six months in advance didn’t mean we would be going together if his schedule happened to change at the last minute.

For nineteen years, I got used to the unpredictable rhythm and flow of Navy life. I enjoyed short duty, I made the most of sea duty, I cobbled together a life of my own, friendships that sustained me, work that fulfilled me and nurtured a love for the man of my dreams across thousands of miles and through thousands of letters and emails and phone calls. And then … we had a baby. At the end of our second decade of marriage, we had our first son. Suddenly, holidays and special events took on new meaning, made all the more bittersweet when my husband was in the middle of an eight-month deployment when the baby was due. He came home, I ended up with a Cesarean section and, eighteen days later, I was alone again. Alone with a baby. And it was baby’s first Christmas.

That year, my first child’s first Christmas was celebrated on December 21, complete with a big meal for two and a sleepy baby cradled in my arms at the dinner table. The next day, my husband packed up the Christmas decorations to spare me all the extra work (I’d hauled the tree out of the attic myself, at nine months pregnant), and the day after that, he packed up his travel bag and caught a plane back to Dubai for another five months. The pictures of baby’s first Christmas reflect a not-quite-three-week old infant and two very tired parents. I suppose the day will come when I might actually forget my husband wasn’t there on the actual day, or that New Year’s. Or even my first Mother’s Day.

Missing holidays as a couple was sad for me when we first married, but the birth of children gave those special events a different kind of spin. There is only one first Christmas, one first Mother’s Day. After twenty-three years of marriage, we are forty-something year old parents of a two-year-old and a four-year-old, and suddenly I can’t bear the thought of him being gone for another holiday. It’s not that I’m less independent than I was before or that I place some greater significance on the holidays than I did before kids. But these early years of childhood are so fleeting, every endearing (or infuriating) moment seems to be a one-of-a-kind experience, and I loathe the idea of my husband missing a holiday or birthday or special event.

After two decades alone together, our family grew from two to four. The house is louder and more crowded; my time is no longer my own even when my husband is gone. And my husband, father of two sons who sings, “Son of a Son of a Sailor” as a bedtime song and likely has seawater in his veins, is now my partner in parenthood who I have to share more often than I would like, with both the Navy and our children. We are a military family, to be sure, but we are a very non-traditional military family, middle-aged parents and rambunctious little boys. My husband’s naval career will be wrapping up in the next couple of years and my hope is that we will be middle-aged stay at home parents together, with a nearly thirty year military pension and my writing income and income from whatever other part-time jobs we get to sustain us. I keep thinking what a unique and lucky experience that would be—how many couples get to stay home with their children full-time, never missing an experience or holiday or event?

The Navy has been good to us and our boys will grow up hearing about their father’s many sea adventures and the five months I took care of an infant by myself, despite never having changed a diaper, and still found time to write. But after the Navy … well, that will be a different kind of adventure all together.

Kristina Wright ( is a full-time writer and editor, Navy spouse and mother to two young boys. She holds a graduate degree in humanities from Old Dominion University and is the author of Bedded Bliss: A Couple’s Guide to Lust Ever After, published by Cleis Press. 

Choosing Our Family

Choosing Our Family

By Candy Schulman

unnamed-1The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life. -Richard Bach

In middle school my daughter was given an assignment to draw a family tree, a fun way to strengthen vocabulary in her French class. She had a pet hamster at the time, and her family tree renderings turned out to be furry and nocturnal, with tails. So was her best friend Nicki’s. No one was surprised. Each of our families were imploding, and our human family structures had shattered irrevocably. At the time, hamsters provided more family support than human relatives.

Madelyn met Nicki as an infant in a Mommy and Me class. We lived a few blocks away, and our families became instant friends, babysitters, weekend travelers. We bought matching outfits for the girls, and they slept over each other’s houses more than they stayed at home. They grew up with a unique friendship bond—more like sisters, without the sibling rivalry. When Nicki’s sister Hannah was born, Madelyn became a big sister too.

Every December we took off in different directions: Nicki’s family to celebrate Christmas in Ohio, ours for Chanukah in California. We reconvened every New Year’s, sharing a bottle of Champagne at midnight long after the girls had gone to sleep, snuggling next to each other in the same bed.

Madelyn was an only child and often asked to have a brother (never a sister). Later she changed her wish from “sibling” to “puppy.” But when she saw other friends who shared weekly Sunday dinners with nearby family members, she knew something larger than a puppy was missing in her life.

“Nicki and Hannah are our family,” I told her, even though she already knew. “You can pick your friends but you can’t pick your family. We are more fortunate than many: we’ve picked friends who have become our family.”

Once when Madelyn became dehydrated and my husband was away on business, I alone had to do everything from getting Madelyn to the hospital to excessive worrying. In my haste, I grabbed the duplicate stuffed Golden Retriever she slept with every night (in case we ever lost the original). When the nurse was setting up a cot for me to sleep next to her hospital bed, I realized the real puppy was home. IV fluids had begun to work, and Madelyn was more aware than the nearly comatose five-year-old in the ER. She sobbed, begging for the only puppy who could coast her into dreamland.

I couldn’t call my family in California for help. So Nicki’s mother rushed over to the hospital on a frigid January night, fetched my house keys, went to pick up Puppy, ran back to the hospital, and generated the first smile Madelyn’s face since she’d gotten a bad case of flu five days ago.

That’s true friendship. That’s family. How many parents are lucky enough to have both?

Years later both of our DNA families began to splinter. Coincidentally, we were both going through disagreements with siblings about our mothers’ wills. Vicious arguments. Law suits. Tears. Families torn apart.

Nicki’s parents invited us out to dinner—without the kids. Before the entrees arrived, they asked if we’d be willing to be the legal guardian of both girls. “It isn’t possible with members of our family anymore,” they said. “And besides, you’re our family now.”

We were honored, yet apprehensive of the large responsibility. Of course we said yes. Who can turn down the needs of true family? And we loved Nicki and Hannah as much, if not more, than blood relatives.

A year later my sister and I were embroiled in a lawsuit over our mother’s will. She’d left me her jewelry, knowing I made less money than my sister did. And I’d been her main caretaker for the last five years of her life. My sister and I had never been close, and even though she lived near our mother, I was the one who spent every Chanukah and birthday with Mom when she was bedridden with dementia, while my sister was gallivanting around Hawaii with her boyfriend

Now we were adversaries in court, a heartbreaking process where my sister told lies about me to the judge and to my nieces and nephews. After our suit was over, I knew I’d never talk to her again.

It was my turn to invite Nicki’s parents out to dinner. They said yes, just as we had. That night I downloaded a legal document from the Internet, notarizing it the next day. My daughter had a new guardian until she’d turn eighteen.

Each year as Chanukah and Christmas nears, I shop for gifts for Nicki and Hannah the way I used to enjoy giving personalized presents to my sister’s family. Together we light the menorah. Madelyn never did get her own puppy, but she’s been crowned guardian aunt to Duke, Nicki’s English bulldog. She walks him when they’re away on vacation. She loves him as if he’s her family—even though he drools and snores.

We have an extended family too. Each year we spend Thanksgiving with Jill, whose son is Madelyn’s age. Last year on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, we cooked for a friend of Madelyn’s since preschool, whose Jewish father now lives in another state and whose mother was raised Catholic. Passover is always with Nicki, where the two girls have searched together for the hidden matzo. Sometimes we have holiday dinners with friends who don’t have children. John, a lifelong friend of my husband’s, is known in our house as “Uncle Johnny,” always interested in hearing details about Madelyn’s soccer games and knowing that she loves dark chocolate whenever he brings her a bakery treat.

Creating a family for our only child, we replaced the families we’ve lost through needless disagreements, but the grief for their absence is always there. No one can ever predict the surprising twists that can cause great distances, beyond geography, among family members. You do what you must to compensate for loss. Our family and holiday gatherings don’t look like they did when I was a child, but there is always plenty of laughter and hugs. Sure we have the occasional disagreement—but after all, we’re family.

Candy Schulman’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Parents,,, The Chicago Tribune and in several anthologies.  She is an Associate Professor of Writing at The New School in New York City.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

To read all of the essays in this series click here.

Where Expatriates Belong

Where Expatriates Belong

By Rachel Pieh Jones

Next, in our What is Family? blog series. Come back tomorrow for the next post in the series.

rachel jones family2My kids are the ones who bring the weird snack to school. The other kids have pain au chocolate (if they are French) or half a baguette with Smiling Cow cheese spread in the middle (if they are Djiboutian). Mine are the ones with homemade granola or banana bread. Nothing wrong with homemade granola or banana bread, but that’s not what the other kids are eating. The food sets them apart. As does their underwear. In swimming class other kids leave thick, single-colored cotton underpants in a heap on the floor. Mine leave Thomas the Tank Engine or Dora the Explorer thin cotton panties in a heap. The smells of home we carry on our clothes and my accent when communicating with the teacher or other parents mark my family. Other. Different. Foreign. Alien, even. We are the ones who don’t quite fit in. We are an expatriate family.

I thought this awkwardness would disappear when we spent one year in Minnesota, the land of our passports and tax-payments and home-ownership. But in Minnesota my family was the one wishing Somali cashiers at Target, “Eid Mubarak.” At school my kids were the Americans who didn’t know what to do in the cafeteria at lunchtime, the kids who thought people played baseball on Thanksgiving, the kids who wobbled on skates and tumbled on skis and who complained of the cold weather when it was 75 degrees. Here, I had the right accent and provided the right school snacks but I didn’t understand the grading system and spent hours and hours and hours perusing the shelves at the grocery store, searching for those snacks, half in awe and half in shock. After a decade abroad, we didn’t quite fit in here either.

When we don’t fit, we forge our own path. My kids didn’t know how to navigate the cafeteria but our twin teenagers have traveled internationally through three countries on their own. We might have strange accents but we can retreat into private family conversations in French or in Somali or English, depending on where we are. We might eat strange food but have learned to be comfortable no matter the strangeness of our underwear.

We don’t exactly fit in Somalia, Kenya, or Djibouti, though we have spent many years in these places and they are now the holders of our memories, the shapers of our present, and the backdrop against which we will always judge our futures. We don’t exactly fit in Minnesota, though four of the five of us were born there, we (loosely) cheer for the Vikings, and we care more about cheese and fresh water lakes than most expats.

Sometimes I sense a disconnect between my husband and I and our children. Tom and I know how to ice skate, enjoy wool socks, know just how long to let marshmallows smolder in hot chocolate. We know how to rake leaves and roll snowballs and what oofdah means. Because Minnesota raised us and our memories are woven through with the smells and seasons of the Midwest, fresh mown grass and wormy streets after a spring rain. My children’s childhoods sound like bicycle horns announcing the morning’s arrival of fresh baguettes. It smells like salty sea air. Their memories will be forever shaped by this place that is home to them in a way it will never be home to their parents. Sometimes I grieve this. I feel a loss, a loneliness, a separation. Other times I see the wild, extravagant gift of it, this widening of world views, the open-handed reception with which our children respond.

And so we make the conscious choice to receive this expat life as a gift. Like baguettes, my husband and I receive the gift as a current reality but my children receive it as the warm crusty bread they will forever love best because it is the bread they loved as children and it will remind them of learning to ride bikes and green wooden bread carts and dodging goats and football (soccer) in the street.

We are each unique and my children are shaping their own spaces, designing their own memories. In the details these memories look almost nothing like my own of growing up in suburban Minneapolis. But in grand, foundational ways, the ways of curiosity, love, creativity, faith, I am giving them what I received. A family to belong to, a family to come out from.

Everyone in our family eats funny food and wears funny underwear and speaks with funny accents. These funny things that separate us from the world bridge the gap and drive us toward each other, where we do fit. We are an expat family and we belong in the in-between spaces we each carve out, the five of us nestled against one another.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.

To read all of the essays in this series click here.

In Search of Symmetrical Stick Figures

In Search of Symmetrical Stick Figures

This is the fifth post in our What is Family? blog series in honor of the season. Your favorite bloggers write about what family means to them. 

image-1FLAW: A defect in physical structure or form; an imperfection or weakness and especially one that detracts from the whole or hinders effectiveness

I come from a typical family. You know, the kind with more than one dad contributing to the creation of the children but less than one dad sticking around to raise them. Typical. Flawed.

I grew up aware that there was a defect in the physical structure of my stick figure drawings. My family only had one peak. We were lopsided. One adult. Three kids. Two hands for guidance. Six hands for mischief.

It turns out that families like mine weren’t as rare as I perceived them to be. In recent decades they have become even more common. But, the general demographic trends hadn’t reached our corner of suburbia in 1985 and the one block sample size that defined normal for my childhood years said our family was anything but typical. The official diagnosis was “broken.” I was from a “broken” home.

Even as a kindergartener, I knew broken was not the desired state of anything. Broken crayons were inferior. Broken toys went to the dump. What did you do with a broken family?

Our family was broken. Other families were fixed.

Our family was shattered. Other families were intact.

Our family was in pieces. Other families were whole.

My family didn’t look like the others on our block and for years I let the differences define me.

I wasn’t just a kid working in the yard. I was the kid without a dad to mow the lawn or trim the hedge.

I wasn’t just a kid enjoying a backyard BBQ. I was the kid who had to ask the dad across the street to open the pickle jar.

I wasn’t just a kid making a Father’s Day card to deliver with this year’s bottle of Old Spice. I was the kid whose dad didn’t fit in Hallmark’s box.

I was the kid who had to save up fourteen days of greetings for a man who pulled into the driveway every other Saturday.  Sometimes he arrived with a new truck. Sometimes with a new girlfriend. Sometimes with bourbon on his breath. Always with a cowboy hat and a pack of unfiltered Camel cigarettes.

Every other Saturday I hopped into trucks of varying colors hopeful that an eight hour visitation would scratch the itch.  Satisfy the longing. Fill the void.

And when my mom inquired, I pretended it had.

I pretended to be satisfied by an afternoon of John Wayne movies in a cramped apartment filled with secondhand smoke.  I pretended not to care that another little girl was getting the daily greetings from my dad that I so desperately craved. I pretended it was funny he couldn’t remember my birthday. I pretended sixteen hours a month was enough.

I became good at pretending.

I pretended not to notice the signs for the Daddy/Daughter dance in the high school hallway.

I pretended to be satisfied with a prom send-off from my brothers.

I pretended it was enough to have my mom cheering on the sidelines.

I pretended not to notice the “S” on the campus parents’ weekend flyer.

But then I stopped pretending.

I met a man I loved and told him about my deepest desire to have a symmetrical family. I told him I was worried that a broken home had broken me. I told him my fears of messing things up for another generation.

And together, against the odds, we built a symmetrical family.

My kids draw stick figure drawings with two tall people. My kids never have to cross the street when they want a pickle.  My kids enjoy a highly ritualized nighttime routine of daily stories, piggy-back rides, and back rubs from their father. My kids wake from nightmares and call out for “Daddy” with no trace of doubt that their calls will be answered. And, when they hear the word “camel” they think of an animal with humps.

I’m not as smug as that comparison makes me sound. Parenthood is a great humbler and I have been humbled in more ways that I can count. I’ve also learned a lot about love. I understand now that love between parents is a bonus but has nothing to do with love between a parent and child.

My kids are deeply loved.

So was I.

Love can be lopsided. Love can be imperfect.

Symmetry is overrated and perfection is unattainable.

When you think about it, making a family is a lot like knitting a holiday scarf.

Sometimes pieces need to be unraveled to fix a fundamental flaw. Sometimes flaws can be fixed by stretching the piece into shape after the fact. Sometimes flaws can be camouflaged with a button or embellishment. But sometimes, you have to make a choice. You can either start over or embrace the flaw as proof that the scarf was made by a real person.

Sometimes families need divorce. Sometimes families need therapy. Sometimes families need permission to laugh at their quirks and failings. Mostly, families just need to embrace who they are and get on with life.

The family I come from is full of real people. People with flaws. People with addictions. People with dreams. People who left. People who stayed. People who loved.

Mostly, just people.

Kristina Cerise is a Seattle writer, editor and mom trying to find meaning in the madness. The mom she planned to be often shakes her head at the mom she has become. She caffeinates daily, blogs regularly ( and tweets occasionally @DefineMother. 

To read all of the essays in this series click here.

Our Eyes Don’t Work: Blind Parents of a Sighted Child

Our Eyes Don’t Work: Blind Parents of a Sighted Child

By Kristen Witucki

This is the fourth post 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.

Witucki“Look,” Langston commands, “over there on the wall.  Do you see the light up there?”

“No,” I answer, smothering my desire to point out that the wall he refers to is the ceiling, “my eyes don’t work.”

“Oh,” he says and touches my nose, “your nose isn’t blind.”

I remember that my nephews and niece, along with any other little kid I’ve known, always try to offer me a solution to the problem of blindness.  “If you open your eyes,” my nephew suggested at age three or four, “they will work.”  But Langston doesn’t seem to be looking for a hole in this new kind of logic or a way to break the “eyes don’t work” mantra.  After all, he’s babbled at me since he was two months old and has probably communicated with touch since birth.  He knows the code switches which allow him as a sighted infant and toddler to communicate with his blind parents.  Langston is turning three, and already he is articulating an understanding of our differences.

In conducting due research for this essay, I ask my husband, “Does Langston ever talk to you about being blind?”

“No,” James says in a tone weighted with thought.  “No, I don’t think so.”

Naturally, this answer fills me with more questions.  Does Langston think that I’m blind but that James can see?  Do I talk about blindness too much, or does James talk about it too little?  Words, words, words.

We’re in the middle of another brief but epic bedtime battle.  I try to remember to give Langston some warning, but I’m tired.  “You may play with your farm animals for another minute, and then you’re going to bed.”

“No,” he says, “I want to play.”

But I remain firm, and after a minute, I send him upstairs where his father will change him and brush his teeth so I can take a brief break before I read and sing him to sleep.  Langston flees into a bedroom. “Langston!” James calls to him, but he doesn’t answer.  “Answer me!” James adds sternly, but Langston exercises the fifth amendment and remains silent.  This is his form of rebellion and probably the worst crime he can commit against two blind people at this stage of his life.

For a second, I feel sympathy for him.  Is he tired of always answering questions like, “What are you doing?” and “What’s that?” as often as he asks them?  Then I smother my sympathy beneath parental loyalty.  “I think he went under the bed,” I tell James quietly.  “Do you want me to get him?”

“No,” James says and roots him out of there.

Later, we are reading Pat the Bunny together.  This book was cute when he was one, but I’m bored with it and remind myself again to hide books I feel he’s outgrown or books I can’t stand reading ONE MORE TIME.  The problem is twofold: first, I forget to hide them while he’s asleep, so he finds them again, and secondly, I’m worried that he’s old enough to remember missing books, and I don’t want to sensor his reading material already.  But I long for the conflict of Owl Babies or the diversity of the animals in The Big Red Barn or even for him to pick up something brand-new. Langston clings to the bunny book’s predictability with astonishing tenacity.

We come to the page which says, “Judy can look in the mirror.  Now YOU look in the mirror.”  I guess since I don’t have a daughter, I’m spared contemplating the subliminal messaging which occurs for girls on that page, but I think of it anyway.  We’ve only read this book about a hundred times before, and Langston exclaims his usual, “There’s Daston in the mirror!”  But tonight he adds, “Mommy, listen in the mirror!”

“How do I listen in the mirror?” I ask him.  For a second, I think maybe he’s going to say something poetic and profound or that he’ll offer up a healing solution.

“I mean, look in the mirror!” he amends hastily.

“I can’t look in the mirror,” I remind him.  “My eyes don’t work.”

“My eyes work,” he responds, as if he can transfer me a vision of myself with those words.

“Well,” I answer, “who do you see in the mirror?”

“Daston!” he shouts again.  “Where does Daston come from?”

“Where do you come from?” I return the question, because sometimes he asks questions to hear himself ask them, but he already knows the answers.

“I come from Mommy and Daddy,” he announces.  And for a moment, that’s all that matters.

Kristen Witucki earned her MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her first book, The Transcriber, became part of Gemmamedia’s Open Door series. Her non-fiction has appeared in Huffington Post, Literary Mama and the Momoir Project. She teaches English, creative writing, and Braille. She lives in West Virginia with her husband, her son, and her Seeing Eye dog. Visit her at

To read all of the essays in this series click here.

After Birth

After Birth

By Eve Rosenbaum

This is the third post 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.

eveI spent two hours smoothing down buns with hair gel and bobby pins, fluffing tutus, and trying to keep their costumes free of crumbs and crayons as we waited to be called to the stage. I had never imagined myself as a backstage mom, and yet I had written my name on the list, volunteering to keep ten three-to-five-year-old girls alive and stain-free at the year-end ballet recital. My daughter was the youngest, nearly four, and the shortest. After herding them into the spotlight, I stood in the darkened wings, watching her in her white and pink costume, the one she’d been desperate to try on for weeks, gazing at it hanging in clear plastic on the closet door. She had been rehearsing for months. In less than three minutes it was over, and I guided the girls backstage once again. My daughter announced that she was now a ballerina.

It wasn’t just that I had never imagined myself as a backstage mom. Really, I never wanted to be a parent at all. Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community, I always expected my life would progress down an orderly and pre-determined path: high school then marriage then kids then …  well, I wasn’t entirely sure what came after kids. More kids, probably. I saw my friends being steered into this life and, at first, I joined in their conversations about who would be first in our class to get married, where we would live. On Sabbath afternoons, we would walk to the houses of girls we knew who were already married with babies. I admit, for at least a couple of years, I wanted it too. My own home life was chaotic and sometimes violent, and I could imagine creating a home for myself and a family that would be nothing like where I came from. I could get married at nineteen and never look back. I could be that kind of girl.

By eleventh grade, that dream was dead. I resolved to never get married or have children, as I was positive that a traditional life would make me lose myself to the endless drudgery of carpool and cooking and keeping a kosher home. I was slowly drifting away from religion and by my last year of college I was firmly, determinedly secular. I realized that as much as I didn’t want to bring children into a traditional religious home, I also couldn’t imagine raising a child outside of Orthodox Judaism. Remaining childless seemed like the best, most responsible choice. Besides, I had never really wanted to be pregnant, had never fantasized about the joys of giving birth. I thought about adoption as a distant, distant possibility.

And then I met my partner. It was my second year of graduate school, her first day. She had just moved to town and by October we were dating. I knew from the start that she wanted children. As our relationship turned serious, I had to decide whether I could truly become a parent, and whether I even wanted to reconsider. Religious issues came up almost immediately: Jen isn’t Jewish and she would be the one to give birth. I hadn’t wanted to raise a secular child; could I raise a child who wouldn’t even be Jewish?  At twenty-two I felt too young to make these decisions but they seemed so distant. Jen and I talked in hypotheticals, imagining our future daughter. We would name her Madeline, we decided, and we would buy her a red coat with black buttons and teach her about art, about the world. We were playing, and this amorphous child became very real to us. I could almost see myself as her parent, a child I hadn’t given birth to but would love unconditionally regardless. She flitted through our conversations like a dream bird, and I told myself how easy it would be to parent this imaginary daughter.

By twenty-six, our daydreams turned serious and our conversations now included topics like fertility monitors, sperm banks, and birthing plans. I knew I wanted the biological father to be Jewish, even if under religious law the baby wouldn’t be considered Jewish. All we knew about the anonymous donor was that he played guitar and clarinet, liked to bake, had seasonal allergies, and that he juggled. We started calling him Jewish Juggler.

Three months later Jen was pregnant, and what had seemed like a game before was immediately, unavoidably, real. Now my family acted strange on the phone. My brother said he didn’t know if he could ever speak to me again. He had to think about it, he said. My parents reminded me that I could never bring this baby to their house, to their community, because as far as their friends knew, I was still single. They wouldn’t display her pictures next to their other grandkids. My sister said, “What did you expect?”

As we prepared for the birth, our conversations turned to the imaginary once again. We would name her Madeline, like we’d decided years before. Jen painted turtles and fish onto canvas for the nursery. We bought feetie pajamas and kimono-wrapped onesies and a tiny striped hat with a bee stitched into the front. I was terrified. My doubts about becoming a parent resurfaced, my anxiety about raising a non-Jewish child, one who wasn’t even biologically mine. Would I love her the way a parent is supposed to love a child? Would she grow up and resent having me instead of a father? I had never been one of those girls who smiled at babies or even noticed them. Could this one be different, even if she didn’t look anything like me? I was scared the answer would be no.

In May, after three days of labor, it was time to get her out. Jen was running a fever. I stood near Jen’s shoulders, watching the baby emerge, watching as a team of doctors pulled her quickly away and started running tests. It was a blur. My legs were numb. I thought, “I didn’t get to cut the cord,” and “This is not what’s supposed to happen.”  They started wheeling Madeline out of the room and Jen urged, “Go with her.”

I followed. I didn’t leave Madeline as they cleaned her off, hooked her up to machines, put a breathing tube in her nose. She looked so small, so bruised and purple. She looked grouchy. If she could speak, she would have lectured me for making her go through something so unpleasant. I stood back while doctors and nurses hovered around her. I had always known that babies were small; even that much was obvious to someone as oblivious as I was. But I never realized just how small she would look on that table, arms swaddled tightly against her chest, fists tucked under her chin.

In that moment, it was just me and her. I realized that it didn’t matter what my brother thought or who her biological father was, or even if she shared my genes or liked the same television shows that I did. Bringing her into the world wasn’t about pleasing my parents or following a set path of how my life should turn out. In that moment, I knew that it was about protecting this child, keeping her safe and thriving, keeping her alive. Even at only a few minutes old, I could see how determined she was to live and I knew that her life was my responsibility. I was a parent; more than that, I was her parent, no matter how complicated.

Madeline was in the ICU for a week before we brought her home. Only Jen’s name is allowed on the birth certificate, but there’s no doubt she is my daughter too.  As I stood in the wings watching her first ballet recital, I understood that being a parent isn’t just about sharing your DNA.  It’s about opening the world for your children, showing them your passions and helping them develop their own. I will teach my daughter everything I can. It’s been a privilege to learn from her in return.

Eve Rosenbaum is a writer, editor, and occasional academic in Iowa City.  You can find her on Twitter: @everosenbaum. 

To read all of the essays in this series click here.

Raising Children in an Interracial Family

Raising Children in an Interracial Family

By Bethany Pinto

This is the second post 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.

image-2“What are we thinking?” She must have asked him in the quiet of the night. They were finally alone after the excitement of the news they had received earlier that day. The social worker had called and confirmed they got a baby girl! Their sleeping three-year-old was beside herself with excitement when she heard she would have a little sister soon. She was singing and jumping around all day. They’d called everyone, overjoyed with the news that before the end of the year, they’d be parents again. “Who are we to think we can do this?” she asked again. After all, it was 1976. It was a small town in middle America, and the baby girl was Black.

“I thought you said you wanted another baby?” he asked her, gazing at the top of her head in the crook of his arm. A single warm tear, laden with an overwhelming, full and present love.  “More than anything,” she responded quietly. “Then we don’t need to think. All we need to do is feel our way through this. We’ll know what to do.” Daddy kissed Mommy’s head and sealed our fate.

*   *   * 

Now it is 2013 and we are living happily as an interracial family. My niece and nephew are lily white with red hair. I proudly display their pictures on my Facebook page and they tell their classmates their aunty is a Black person. My other nephews are biracial, like my brother, and my own little man looks Puerto Rican, thanks to me and his daddy’s multi-ethnic backgrounds. Yup, Mom and Dad have a beautiful and colorful family portrait of grandbabies they are more than willing and quite eager to share with the world!  What they must have gone through in the mid-70s, consciously choosing to raise Black children in a time when interracial couples and babies were not always accepted in society. They must have known what they were facing. Blacks and Whites were not getting along, or just barely tolerating each other’s cultures at best. Some of our family—on both sides—tried to discourage them from adopting us. And I know that some people turned their backs on these two determined young school teachers—neither of whom had much exposure to the Black community—who both believed love was more powerful than cultural boundaries. How did they manage to raise two biracial kids and one White child together in the same family in the 70’s and 80’s?

Mom and Dad refused to make color an issue. They dressed me and my (blond, blue-eyed) sister alike for pictures. Whenever people stared at us, my sister would encourage me to smile and give a friendly hi. And when people in our small town asked my mom whose kids she was watching, she would proudly say we were her babies!

I was quite aware I was Black from a very young age so my parents never had a problem telling me I was adopted. My mom helped me explore my natural curiosity about the Black culture. She exposed me to such books as Alex Haley’s Roots (which I read the summer before 7th grade) and Autobiography of Malcolm X. She bought us African masks and sculptures and made sure my sister and I played with both black and white baby dolls. When I went away to college, I tried pigs feet for the first time, I learned the Black National Anthem (okay, I don’t actually know it—but I learned of its existence for the first time), and started greasing my scalp. Instead of playing the victim or focusing on the negative, my parents taught all three of us to be loving and accepting of others (including ourselves) despite our differences.

While I can see now what my parents took on by choosing this lifestyle, I was confused about my cultural identity throughout my childhood. Our small town seemed like a realistic representation of American diversity at that time: predominately White with smaller numbers of the Black, Spanish and Asian populations. I went to school with mostly White kids and by high school, my group of close friends nicknamed ourselves the United Colors of Benetton after the diverse models shown in the clothing company’s ads. My best friends were Chinese, White, Jewish, Iranian, Korean and I was biracial.  I felt most comfortable with these girls because I didn’t feel totally “in” with either the all white crowd or the all black crowd. I never felt Black enough to meet the Black kids’ approval; and the White “popular clique” was never going to fully accept me as one of them (one particular comment I heard in high school that I’ve never forgotten, from one of the cute popular White boys was, “You know, you’re really pretty—for a Black girl.”)

I had a lot of issues feeling ashamed of being half and half. On the one hand, I didn’t know what it was like to be Black American any more than I knew what it was like to be Italian or Chinese. I didn’t identify with the culture or the people. At best my knowledge came from what I saw on tv—hip hop music and Black athletes or an occasional fashion trend. But I didn’t know how to be Black American. And, at the time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be.

My parents encouraged me to never deny being Black. Yet, as a teenager and young adult, I couldn’t get the Black thing right.  Even worse, I felt I was betraying the Black culture, and all the rich history and pride that went along with it.  But even when I would act “White” I couldn’t allow myself to completely embrace it.  How did that make any sense?  I went away to college feeling embarrassed to be from a small White town, from a White family and have so few Black friends.  Where was my place?  Who was I meant to be?

While I didn’t understand it at the time, now, as an adult, I recognize the discrimination my parents faced during our childhood. Whenever I would ask why people were looking at us, my mom would tell me they were staring at us because of my beauty.

My family accepts me.

I’ve become a Black girl because of the freedom my parents have given me to explore my culture and the unconditional acceptance of my lifestyle choices through my adult years.

I’ve become a White girl because of my own acceptance of all the love and happiness I’ve experienced as part of the culture.

I’ve become biracial. And I will always embrace my White as well as my Black heritage. Thanks to the colorblind love that led a young White couple to act in enormous faith, I’ve grown up to learn that we’re all one, created in God’s image. If I can replicate this quality from my parents, then I will be all right. Because I’ll finally understand, better yet, live, their example. And that means so much to me.

What does family mean to you? Pin your photos to our Pinterest board at

To read all of the essays in this series click here.

Family Motto: More Love is More Love

Family Motto: More Love is More Love

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.

coraThe 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.