I follow a blog called Humans of New York, or HONY. If you are a fan of people watching, you should follow it too.
The guy behind the popular page is Brandon, and he photographs people around New York, and then asks them a few questions from which he derives the captions of the photos from. Some are hysterical, some sad, some tender. All capture the diversity of the flavor of New York. My favorite part of HONY is that Brandon does a beautiful job of capturing our differences in photos, but the captions more often point to how we really are so much more the same than different.
Brandon is currently doing a UN tour, and his work is even more stellar. The work he does with his camera is bringing more understanding than any peace-keeping mission I can remember. Check out his work in the Middle East. I promise you that it will make you feel something.
This morning, he posted a photo of a young man from Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. The brief caption that he wrote told the story of the young man’s struggles with finding a job and having enough food to eat. It ended with the sentence quoted from the young man, “I’ve learned that your family can be anyone.”
This is such a painful, but beautiful sentiment. It’s one that I’ve had to learn and it’s one that I’m having to teach my youngest daughter.
You see, my youngest daughter only became my daughter a year and a half ago. Before that, she was in and out of the foster care system, living a life full of uncertainty and insecurity. Much like me, her biological parents are still alive. One is not suitable to have as a parent and the other suffers from severe mental health issues and is not capable of being a parent.
The challenge, when you have parents that cannot parent you, is figuring out how to grow into a person who can see your parents for who they really are, instead of who you wish that they were. It is so easy, and much less painful, day to day, to imagine that your parents are out there and they live in a castle and drive fancy cars and they love you and they are looking for you tirelessly and will never give up until they one day, find you and you all live happily ever after.
It is much harder to deal with the truth, which might be that they know exactly where you are or how to get a hold of you, that they aren’t really interested in expending the energy required to have a relationship with you, that they are horribly selfish or not people that you would really want in your life, especially if you are needing a parent to actually parent you.
So, my youngest has biological parents, out there, somewhere. And then she has me. Lucky girl.
Last night, I came home from work to find my youngest hanging out on the TV. It was nearly 8pm and I had been at work all day. My husband was gone to a baseball game, after working all day as well.
I came home with the plan to have a salad for dinner, but because it was so late, I asked my daughter if she had already eaten dinner. Of course she hadn’t, so I made her a salad too. I checked my email while eating and she continued watching her show. As I was cleaning up the kitchen, (without any offer of help from her), I saw that there was an empty bag of Doritos in the garbage. I don’t usually buy Doritos, but when we went camping last weekend I told her she could get a bag. I asked her, “Did you eat that whole bag of Doritos today?” which is really a stupid question, since the evidence was in the garbage can. She replied that she had, likely bracing herself for the lecture that was about to come her way.
Being the mom I am, I didn’t disappoint, but then I followed up with, “Did you eat anything else today?” again, knowing perfectly well what the answer was going to be. She told me that the Doritos had been her sole source of sustenance for the day. God. Bless. America. And you wonder why I don’t buy Doritos. So I continued on with the lecture of how Doritos do not constitute a meal in ANY country and certainly not in our house, where there is plenty of food to make oneself if one is not too LAZY. Then, partially because I was already annoyed and partially because I was curious, I asked if she had also been parked in front of the TV for the whole day- breaking another cardinal rule of mine. You’ve got to give it to the girl. She’s honest. Knowing full well, that my annoyance level was about to skyrocket, she told me that yes, she had in fact been parked in front of the TV. ALL. DAY. LONG.
I give her my typical, ‘Watching TV all day is not good for your brain, it actually makes you depressed, (studies show it!)” and added, “If you can’t monitor your own TV time, I will treat you like a little kid, instead of the high schooler that you are, and give you TV limits!” (I’ve told you I’m an awesome parent) and then I proceeded to tell her to turn off the TV and go read a book. At one time, that might have been considered a punishment by her, but she actually LIKES reading now, so it’s not like I was sending her off to the dungeon or something.
About fifteen minutes later, I went into her room to ask her a question and find her sitting on the side of her bed crying. Although I suspect it’s because I lectured her about her Doritos diet and told her to turn off the TV, I’m a bit confused by the reaction. She can’t possibly have been surprised by either of those things. She’s lived with me and my crazy ideas of healthy food and minimal TV for years. She’s gotten plenty of lectures on both, including the time that she ate THREE AND A HALF chocolate muffins from Costco IN. ONE. DAY. Have you seen those things? I don’t want to ruin anyone’s fun, but those things are NOT breakfast. We still call her the muffin man for that one.
AnyWHO. She’s crying, I’m asking what is wrong, she’s telling me ‘I don’t know’, I’m telling her: 1. That is not an answer 2. people just don’t cry for no reason and 3. if there is something that is making her upset, using her words will likely get her better results than tears. Yes, I know. I’m very sympathetic. I stand there for a few minutes and then ask her if she’s crying because I told her to turn off the TV. She says that’s not the reason, but then I point out that she was happy as a clam when I put food in front of her face and she was eating while watching TV. It was only once I told her to go do something productive with her brain that she got upset, and I didn’t even use those exact words!
Eventually, either because she just wanted me to leave or because she knew the TV excuse wouldn’t gain her any sympathy, she told me that she was crying because she ‘missed her family’.
I’d like to tell you that I’m such a well developed and balanced human that those words didn’t feel like a knife. But I can’t. Standing there, in the room that I had made pretty for her, with her wearing the clothes that I got her that make her feel good, with the healthy meal that I made her in her belly, after a day of no chores watching mindless TV in a house with heat and electricity, never mind the private school she attends and on and on and on, she was telling me that she missed her family. I don’t know if she knew those words would hurt me or if she just was sitting in her room feeling sorry for herself because she has me as a mom and I don’t just let her do whatever the heck she wants, but I took a few big breaths and put on my big-girl panties, which meant stuffing my hurt feelings down and dealing with the actual words that she said.
When I take away the possible intent behind the words and the hurt that it caused me, hearing them right after I told her to turn the TV off, I can hear the words, “I miss my family” and know that there is truth to them, no matter what their original intent. Of course she misses her family. I miss MY family and I’m 42 and have put boundaries up around them. She’s just a kid who has had little to no say in the events that have taken place in her life. I am actually glad that she misses her family, it would be weird if she didn’t. The challenge is remembering the family you miss as the family that they actually are, and not as a fairytale concoction. Being nearly 12 years old the last time she saw her mom and it being nearly two years since she has heard from her biological sister, she is old enough to have the memories, but some of the details have likely softened.
One of our main goals as being her parents, is to make sure that we help her become a strong enough person that when she is an adult, she will be able to use wisdom to create healthy boundaries around herself and her biological family, should she choose to seek them out. They are not healthy people, she is going to need that skill. Because of my experience with my family, and because she is old enough to know, we don’t shield her completely from information about her family. She needs to have a real picture, not a fairytale. Not having heard from anyone in her biological family for so long, we really didn’t know how anyone was doing, so I hugged my daughter and told her of course she misses her family. I told her that her family loved her and wanted the best for her. I told her that I’m sure her family thinks about her. I then sent a text to her biological grandma, asking about everyone. The text back was lengthy, but filled with the truth about the family. Things have gone from bad to worse in many situations. There was not one question about how my daughter was doing, but I wasn’t expecting one, so it only mildly pissed me off.
I let my daughter read the responses back and forth. She sat there for a minute re-reading them and then thanked me for texting her grandma and for letting her see the texts. She gave me a hug. I hugged her back. I told her that we knew that we can’t take the place of biological family, but we are trying to do the work of what ‘family’ means. Loving each other, being there for each other, taking care of each other, being honest with each other and yes, telling each other when choices aren’t good. That is all a part of what family means.
When I read the post from HONY today and especially the quote, “I’ve learned that your family can be anyone”, it resonated deep within me and gave me hope that someday it will ring true for our daughter.