Tuesday, November 18, 2008

It Finally Happened, The Dreaded "Family Tree"

This morning when I volunteered in Matthew's class as I do many mornings, his teacher talked to me about the project he was sending home with the kids. This was not as a "heads up" for us, but just discussing as we often do what is going on in class during the times I am not there. I was so glad that his teacher approached this in such a matter of fact, no big deal way. It told me that he sees as us no different than any other family, which frankly I appreciated.

Mr. T informed me that he was having the kids all do a Family Tree tonight, as their latest reading assignment was a story about becoming a new citizen. We have many immigrant children in our school, and it was a great opportunity to share their diverse backgrounds.

All these years I have been participating in adoption groups online, I have read many differing perspectives on these projects. I am always a bit taken aback by just how many adoptive parents are disturbed by this, by how many feel that it is insensitive to the adoptee. I have actually read of very few parents who are not in some way or another troubled by a family tree, and many who inevitably make it a far bigger deal than their children ever would.

Sometimes we forget that our own issues can be projected onto our children, and create something where at first there existed nothing. Our own insecurities and insistence that we are indeed the "real parents" can come exploding out with an assignment such as this. I made a conscious decision early on when reading of the angst of so many parents that this was just not something that should ever be a major issue in our house, that, in the words of our church, "our diversity unites us".

After all, when you think about it, how many of us who were NOT adopted don't know our complete family history? How many of us have no idea what ethnicity or blend of races we really are? How many of us have "blanks" in our own trees?? So tell me again why our kids adoptive family trees are such a big deal? I know, I know...I am just an insensitive buffoon of a mother, and I readily agree to that. In our home we tend to take a humorous approach to many things, and this is just another one of those areas where we are the same way. Drama is not a major player in our house (I know as I write this with girls on the way that I WILL eat those words, so no one need snicker as they read it...I am enjoying a Drama Free Zone while I can! hahahaha!).

And maybe it is because we have had enough real tough pills to swallow over the years as we have delved deeply into the pain and loss of adoption that we don't need to add unnecessarily to it.

Matthew came home and was quite interested in doing it, and in fact wanted to make a bigger version than what was assigned so he did the single sheet paper one then asked if we had anything that would work to create a larger version. I happened to have some leftover black posterboard and just got some silver and gold markers at the dollar store for no particular reason other than I thought they were cool, so we were all set to make his Big Family Tree!!

We pulled out Grandpa Rock's family album, the one he made for me just a few months before he passed away. There, neatly outlined for us, was his family tree all the way back 4 generations to Germany. We filled in spaces for Grandma Alice and her parents, for Dominick's parents and Italian grandparents. As we looked through Grandpa Rock's album we saw photos of him as a child and in uniform while serving in the Korean war. I thought to myself that I bet he never would have imagined having Asian grandchildren, and yet I know how he would have adored them. We looked at photos of Grandma Alice as a child and all three boys instantly said it was me before I could reveal it was her, so there must be a strong family resemblance.

I then went and got Matthew's adoption documents and found the names of his birth parents, which we are certain were created for the sole purpose of making birth certificates as he was abandoned at the hospital and we were told that his birth mom entered under a false name, which is very common in Kazakhstan for an out-of-wedlock birth. But we added those names anyway, as it is all we have and those names are at the very least a symbol for his birth parents, and I feel that not acknowledging them in some way is disrespectful and an attempt to rewrite a history that is not mine to rewrite. He also wrote on it both of his names...his birth name and his adoptive name.

When done adding all the names, Matthew added some flourishes and I suggested maybe putting flags on there from all the countries our family represents, which he thought was a great idea so I printed them out and handed them to him to add to the tree.

When he had finished it, we stood back and looked at it and determined he was happy with the end result. He is excited to take it to school tomorrow, and I will be interested to see how the other kids react to it.

As he was working on his project, Joshua asked if he could have some of that cool board to draw something too, so I gave him an extra piece and he drew a volcano and himself climbing up a mountain nearby, and he wrote his name and "I am 5" on it. He was quite pleased with his own masterpiece, and then it was bedtime so they all went to bed. It wasn't 2 minutes later when Josh came out and begged to write just one more thing on his picture. I could tell it was important to him and he said he would be fast so he went and got the silver pen, flipped over his picture and then looked up at me and asked "Mommy...how do you spell my first name before you 'dopted me?". That was a first for us with him, so I slowly told him how to spell it "Alem Bulatovich Sahtanov" which he slowly wrote in a run-on fashion, and then quite matter-of-factly marched back to bed.

God's timing is so funny, as just this evening after Scouts I ended up in a long conversation with a couple of our moms about the boys, the girls, their adoptions, etc. We talked about how every kid has their own issues to deal with, and ours just happen to be different than most. The things we deal with are far afield of what many families have to handle, but that doesn't make our struggles and issues more important than someone else's, it just makes it different. Most of the families we know don't deal on a daily basis with race, abandonment, and unknown histories to the degree that we do. But they may have to explain divorce, drug abuse or other things. No one has a "Leave It To Beaver" life. OK, so maybe SOMEONE does, but no one I know of.

And yet when I look at our life, for all it's failings, mishaps and challenges, it actually DOES feel a bit like a perfect sitcom. We have a laugh track created by all of us, we always seem to have some sort of minor dilemma (and may they always be minor), and we have some zany characters who occasionally let us see the deeper, more emotional side.

I always wonder though why it is that we, as human beings, have this need to pigeon hole ourselves into categories. Why can't we see that we are not all one thing or all another, but are ALL a blend of so many things? What is so uncomfortable about being "undefined"? If I can give my kids anything, I hope I can provide them with the security to see all that they and everyone else they know are. I would hope that they grow up to look at someone and take it all in, rather than instantly placing them in some arbitrary category because that is the easiest "fit". Like a "soda pop suicide" where a kid walks up to the fountain drink dispenser and fills his 32 oz. cup with a little bit of every single variety available, why can't we do the same as we view people?

Sitting here looking across the room at the gold and silver Family Tree propped up to remind Matt to take it in tomorrow, I see misspellings and crooked lines, I see unpolished script. I also see a real family, I see flags of many nations, I see an exuberant acceptance of all that Matthew is, both by blood and by adoption. Others may make a distinction for him between bio and adoptive family, others may try to place him in the "immigrant" category or the "Asian" category or the "adopted" category, but he just sees "Family".

And that is what it is all about.


Maureen said...

I am so happy to hear I am not the only one who saw other adoptive parents as hyper-sensitive about Family Tree projects!!!!! It's not that I plan to be insensitive about the issue or hide anything, but I don't see the big deal in creating a picture of how my son sees his family. We fortunately even have some other birth family members beyond our son's mother and father to add and I think that's pretty cool.

I think Matthew's Family Tree turned out beautiful! Thanks again for sharing and being so open and honest.

Anonymous said...

Another touching blog, Cindy! I was so moved by the pictures, the family tree story and Josh finding importance in adding his "birth" name. Afterall, that is also who he is. Your encouraging your children to be proud of All of who they are is priceless! Kudos to you! Love, Joan

Anonymous said...

Hey - are you saying we don't live a Leave It to Beaver lifestyle? I am sooo offended! (excuse me while I laugh over here...)

Bob; Carrie DeLille said...

As always, amen and amen!! As a believer with great joy and gratitude, I accept the new family tree Christ has granted"... for you are all one in Christ Jesus" 1 Corinthians 11 and though our adopted children may have an extra branch or two, they all share the same parents as we believers belong to HIS family tree. We have been grafted in-Romans 11:19. Admittedly, it still breaks my heart a bit when a teacher asks for baby pictures-only because I'd like to see those

Hilary Marquis said...

I think Matthew did a great job with his project. I also think that our kids probably have some of the most interesting family trees!

Shannon said...

That is the coolest, most interesting family tree I've ever seen! Great job!

Lindsay said...

Way cool project Matthew! Love it.

I love your perspective on the Family Tree project. In all my years teaching this I've honestly never seen a child upset by it, confused by it or embarassed by it. I've never had a parent complain either, so my assumption is that they don't have issues with it either.

I actually enjoy teaching it because it does bring up so many discussion points. As a way of introducing the concept of Society and our place and role in it, I actually really like the way it can be used to affirm how diverse family is. I've seen it clear up a lot of troubling misconceptions for some children - such as thinking they don't have a father, since one has never been around! I once taught this in a class where only 2 children out of 30 lived with both their birth mother and father. Everyone else was in either single parent or step-parent families, foster care or a children's home. We had a lot of interesting discussions aimed at identifying who we each individually felt was in our family and why. Which led to a great discussion on what family is and what can be the impact of dysfunctional families on children.

Children are a lot more interested, willing and able to discuss these kinds of things than we may assume. Something like the Family Tree is simply providing the tool to aid the discussion.

We are the families that we are. Birth family, foster family, adoptive family - the key word is 'family.'