Do you sometimes think about the grown-ups who existed in the periphery of your childhood and wonder who they would be if you met them adult to adult? I often remember them through their children: the kid whose parents were on-again-off-again, the kid whose parents were in an open relationship, the black kid adopted into a white family, the kid whose mom was always unto the next fail-proof business opportunity, the kid whose parents went bankrupt, the kid whose parents didn’t speak French, the kid whose parents chased an ideal larger than themselves, and so on.
I sometimes get a glimpse of how our family is seen from the outside based on the comments people make about the size of our family or about the number of times we’ve moved or changed cars. The assumptions that people make reveal so much about their on fears and foibles. There is a world lurking behind an innocuous: “I would have had more children but Little Joey is way too attached to me,” “We only wanted two children and now we really want a third one and we don’t know what to do!” or “We want to sell this house but this is where we raised our children.” People wed themselves to things and ideas, it’s little wonder that everything feels like a divorce.
Paul and I don’t change for the sake of change. We make decisions that we revisit when circumstances change. Paul and I were expecting our first child within a year (almost to the day) of meeting each other. I was 21 and had just finished my first year of Law School. We were expecting our second child a year later. If that doesn’t school you in expecting the unexpected, nothing will.
If you look back at your twenties, you might find that the time you spent in University was a time of intense questioning. You may not have finished the same degree you started. You may not have been in the same country anymore. Maybe you took a temporary placement in a new city and stayed with a full time job, maybe you followed someone somewhere and liked the place more than the person. People seem to partition their lives between a time of self-discovery during which change is expected and a time of settling down after which change is to be avoided. Paul and I went through the same iterations as anyone else, but we had to discover ourselves with a family in tow. We had 4 children in our twenties, 4 children in our thirties and one in our forties. They were along for the ride while we made money, lost money, built things, tore them down, started businesses and went back to school. But through it all, we always kept a focus on our relationships with each other and the primacy of our family.
I’m no child psychologist but I read Gordon Neufeld often enough to teach a graduate class on “Hold On to Your Kids”. From Neufeld, I learned that children can withstand extraordinary change in their lives as long as the essential of survival are met, and this includes the first survival mechanism: attachment. Listening to your children, you might get the impression that a lot of niggly things are necessary to their survival, like junk cereals, video games and fingerling monkey things. But if you look past the pyrotechnics — and read Gordon Neufeld — you will discover that children have deceptively simple needs: care and affection. We can get away with a lot of topsy-turvy when the fundamentals are in place.
In many ways, change is like a form of exercise. There is exercise that strengthens and exercise that injures. And the degree to which a certain exercise can traumatize your body is not a function of the exercise itself but of the state of your body. Walking may be good for you but if you have a broken leg, it will ruin everything. The same goes for change in family life: the degree to which our children can be traumatized by a change in their circumstances is more a function of their emotional health and sensitivity going in than the material circumstances of the change.
Throughout the changes in our lives, we have worked to maintain a strong family identity and nurtured a sense of belonging, not to a place, or a school, or a level of comfort, but to each other. Our children trust us to love them and keep them safe in good times and in bad. They may not always welcome change with enthusiasm but we remain steadfast in our commitment to them.
I’m leaving you with this wonderful scene from “Bridges of Madison County” about change, and making the most of it: